Let them fall where they may: On the disposal of hair cuttings

Like many of you, I imagine, I get the itch to do some intense cleaning, reorganizing and casting away of clutter (physical, mental and spiritual) around the spring and fall equinoxes.  And maybe like some of you (or maybe I’m alone in this), I often express my determination to cut through stagnant energy by cutting off my own hair.  There is an ancient cross-cultural thread that tells us our hair contains something of ourselves – Samson’s might, a woman’s virtue, a man’s honor, a baby’s innocence.  By extension, our hair also carries with it our emotional traumas, our negative experiences, and our bad habits.  I’ve known more than a few dear people in my life that, in the ultimate gesture to signal  the release of a past hurt, the end of a bad relationship, to officially move on to a new stage and a fresh start, have chopped off their hair.  I also notice that when my hair reaches a certain length, it starts to weigh me down emotionally & mentally until I take some off.  I see this in a smaller scale in fingernails as well.  Personally, my fingernails will frequently give away my anxieties by developing white streaks and ridges during times of stress, and I always feel a sense of relief that the worst is behind me when I can trim away the last of those physical markers.

At any rate, usually in March and again in September/October, I find myself wielding the scissors again, but then I’m left with the question of what to do with the clippings.  I would guess that some rational people in the world don’t think twice about sweeping their hair up into the bin with the rest of the garbage.  But even when I have envisioned the trimmings as bearing the parts of myself I want to be rid of, perhaps because at these times I am especially aware that this is a ceremonial act more than a cosmetic one, I feel like there should be special rules for the disposal of the remnants.  As a child, I collected and saved the lengths of braids I would cut off (I’m sure my parents weren’t concerned at all), but in recent years I have had a strong compulsion to scatter my hair among the trees.  I tried to make sense of this by imagining that – particularly in the spring and fall – the little woodland creatures could use my luxurious locks to give a fresh lining to their nests and dens.  Finally I decided to consult the archives of folklore for any rules on the discarding of cut hair, and it turns out this approach is NOT AT ALL ADVISED.

Let’s take a look at some of the folk-wisdom on the matter and re-evaluate my instincts:

  1. If a bird retrieves your hair for its nest, you will become bald.
  2. If a bird or rat gets a strand of a person’s hair for nesting, that person will lose her mind.
  3. If a bird gets your hair trimmings, you’ll get a headache, or toothache, or die.
  4. If someone cuts a piece of your hair and puts it in a hollow tree, you’ll go crazy.
  5. Don’t let anyone step on your fallen hair or you will get a headache.
  6. If someone else cuts a piece of your hair, or obtains a piece of your hair, they have power over you.
  7. Hair cuttings thrown in the wind bring bad luck.
  8. If your hair combings are blown away in the wind, it will make you forgetful.*
*This last entry is actually somewhat along the same lines as the desired effect – forgetting past troubles – but to become entirely forgetful is a bit much.
For those of you out there who might have, like me, already DONE this, all hope is not lost:
  • If a bird gets your combed hair and you go crazy, you can undo it by getting your hair back from the bird.
  • If you save the nest a bat makes of your hair, your luck will change and be good.

Sweet; no problem.

But what about alternative methods of disposal?  Opinions vary:

  1. If you throw your hair in the waste basket or on the floor and step over it, you’ll go bald.
  2. Don’t throw your hair on the ground or your ghost will come back and pick up all the hair you once discarded.  Burn it instead.
  3. On the other hand, if you burn your hair combings, you will go crazy.
  4. To throw or place a strand of a girl’s hair in a stream of running water, it will run her out of her mind.
  5. But, put your own hair combings under running water and it will grow.
  6. Be sure to put some of your cut hair in the tire tracks or it won’t grow anymore.
  7. Use hair combings to stuff cushions and you’ll never go bald.
  8. Put hair beneath a large rock to prevent headaches.
  9. Better yet, find a rock where the house eaves drip and put it there to grow your hair long and smooth .
  10. Cut hair should be buried by a young tree.
  11. Collect the hair and toenails of your enemy, put them in a bag under his doorstep and the enemy will go crazy.
  12. If you put a piece of hair under the doorstep, it will cure someone who is sick in the house.

This idea of using trimmings of hair to cast away illness is also reflected in plugging rituals.  Cory at New World Witchery posted a brilliant and thorough investigation of these practices a matter of days after I composed my first draft of this entry last spring, so I won’t bother recapping what he already covered.  You can read that post here.

One fascinating approach to using plugging to undo someone else’s magic wrought with your hair is referenced in Catherine Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic:

“If someone gets your hair and uses it to force you into love, you can break their power over you:  Pull out one of your own hairs from the mould of your head and wrap it tightly around a nail, then walk into the woods with a hammer and drive the nail all the way into a Sweet Gum tree, walk back the same way you came and don’t look back.”

Many sources agree that a plugging ritual – inserting your hair or the hair of a loved one into a tree – somehow marries the fates of the tree and the person whose hair was used, so that if one dies the other does too.  I wonder what effect the plugging would have on the sap of a tree if you were to tap it – would you capture some of the life force of that person in the sap?  You could make a magical maple syrup in that way, perhaps??  This gives me all kinds of weird ideas about vampiric pancakes and symbolic cannibalism…
Moving on… Along with what to do with hair once it’s cut, there was also a great deal of (sometimes conflicting) folklore on when to do the actual cutting:
  1. Cut hair immediately before the moon is full, or trim it in the new moon.
  2. The best time is in the sign of Cancer, but not on the fourth of July.
  3. Cut hair on the night of the new moon and dream of the face of your future husband.
    (Fellas,  you have to rely on some kindly matron cutting her hair for you: Put a lock of a woman’s hair under your pillow and dream of your future wife.)
  4. If hair is cut on Good Friday, you will never go bald
  5. Snip a small strand of hair on the first of March and you will never go bald
  6. Wash your hair or let it fall in the first May rain for growth and luster
  7. Comb your hair in the moonlight for enchanting hair
  8. Comb your hair after dark, comb sorrow into your heart

Two other tangentially related bits about hair that I thought were of interest include:

  • If you have a stray hair on your person, remove it and put it on the back of your hand and make a wish.
    (I grew up with a similar kind of practice that involved wishing on fallen eyelashes.)
  • To make or keep a lover (depending on whom you ask): pull out, swallow, carry, burn/bury, or hide in your home his/her hair or put your hair in his/her clothes or under his/her doorstep.

Let’s make sure we have this straight: Your hair under your own doorstep put there by you = healing power.  Your hair under someone else’s doorstep put there by you = together forever.  Your hair under your own doorstep put there by someone else = mental breakdown.  Proceed with caution.

So to distill all of this reading we’ve done into some takeaways, the first thing I noticed was that very few superstitions about hair cutting (in my sources at least) actually agree with each other on whether something portends very good things or very bad things, and the exact same actions can be both promoted or proscribed.  The second thing I noticed was that there were still a lot of common elements that tended to show up again and again, regardless of the positive or negative spin.  It seems that certain places, actions, and times are significant, and while individuals might disagree on what exactly will happen when these elements line up, the consensus seems to be that SOMETHING will happen.  With regards to your hair (washing, cutting or combing), there is potency in Fridays, the months of March and May, moonlight and moon phases, burying or hiding under trees/rocks/doorsteps, and giving it away to water/wind or animals, with anticipated effects on health, love, beauty, and especially one’s mental state.

Being a practical and not very fearful witchy person, I am inclined to take this as a fabulous set of tips on when and how to employ hair cutting magic, and that with your intent, you can utilize these ingredients to create the outcome of your will, be it positive or negative.  As for the hair I’ve already scattered to the four winds and tucked in nearly every tree of my stomping grounds, openly inviting birds and critters to have at it, I’m inclined to believe that it will alter my mental state.  By offering this very powerful piece of myself to the animals in my geographic sphere of influence, I’m forming relationships and acknowledging that my fate is thrown in with theirs.  I’ve invested in their survival (even if just symbolically) and strengthened my connection to the spirits of my place, which I find fulfilling, comforting and empowering.

I also heard somewhere, and I wish for all our sakes that I remembered where, whether it was in a book, a dream, or a conversation, that part of the belief behind losing one’s mind from birds and animals running off with one’s hair is about exactly that connection that is forged – a part of you exists with that bird or animal, sharing in its journeys and fears, seeing through its eyes.  That could be awfully distracting – even maddening – for someone unprepared, but for witchfolk like us?  It sounds like a beautiful opportunity, and I for one choose to continue throwing my hair – and my caution – to the wind.

Hair Offering

Love and health to you all in these blustery toddler days of autumn.


Unless otherwise cited, folklore that I wasn’t raised with is culled from Popular Beliefs and Superstitions: A Compendium of American Folklore from the Ohio Collection of Newbell Niles Puckett, edited by Wayland Hand, Anna Casetta and Sondra Thiederman (1981).


How to tell if he likes you, and other sleepover occult games

When I was a little girl, Ouija boards were only rarely hailed as the harbingers of devil worship that they used to be, and mind-bending was so commonplace that one night when we hypnotized a girl into believing she was a toddler on the Titanic and she spent the rest of the night cry-babbling in a corner, we were barely phased.  But these days, when party guests are busy talking politics and kids, I’m just as likely to get shunned as scoffed at if I suggest a friendly game of “light as a feather, stiff as a board.”

Have we grown out of the thrill of the supernatural in our play time?  Are shared experiences of mystery and magic no longer considered relevant after the legal voting age?  This possibility confuses and saddens me, so I suggest we stand up and answer those questions with a resounding “No!”

In the hopes of garnering your support in the “spooky is still fun” cause, and in honor of the love spell extravaganza that has been hitting the pagan podcast airwaves surrounding St. Valentine’s day, I bring to you:

“How to tell if he likes you after one game of cards*”


Now, some will tell you that to discover the initials of your beau-to-be, you need to stick a key in a Bible and recite the words of Ruth, or peel an apple all in one strip and throw it over your shoulder.  My friends and I weren’t allowed to have knives at school, so instead of peeling the apple, we would turn the stem, reciting the alphabet with each turn, and whatever letter you were on when the stem broke off would be the first initial of your lover’s first name.  Effective as this may be, there are only so many apples, and really… how much fun is a name?  We wanted more answers, and we wanted to be able to at least have a say in our pool of potential suitors.

Enter the card game.

The card game (affectionately called “Four Kings”) allowed us to not only name four boys in whom we might have some interest and guarantee a match with at least one of them, it also gave us the opportunity to find answers to our every question about them, and to get a glimpse of our possible futures together.

Besides my very limited social circle, I have yet to meet anyone that played this game as a young’un (or as an adult, for that matter).  If you did, or if you played something similar, please tell me about it!  You can either leave a comment here by clicking up near the top of this entry, or contact me at PaganSpace or email up there on the right.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here are the full rules:

Love Divination with Playing Cards

Begin with one dealer (the card “reader,” if you will), and one player (the “querent”), and one deck of 52 cards.  The dealer removes the four king cards and shuffles the deck.  The kings are arranged facing the querent from left to right as follows:

King of Hearts   –   King of Diamonds   –   King of Clubs   –  King of Spades

The querent then labels each of the kings with the name of a boy she knows, with the most loved on the left (King of Hearts), a boy she likes as the King of Diamonds, a friend that’s a boy as the King of Clubs, and lastly a boy she hates (King of Spades).  [Thank you to commenter Katharine for reminding me of this detail!]  I should say that this game can also be played for ladies, and one can substitute Queens for Kings, if desired.  For simplicity of pronouns only, I am assuming female players and male um… targets.

Before going any further, the querent must choose three cards face down from the remaining deck, and set them aside for later without looking at them.  These cards will answer the three main questions: “Who do I like?” “Who likes me?” and “Who am I going to marry?”  But before we can learn that much, the querent gets to ask 15 other questions of her choice, as long as the answer can be one of the four boys chosen as Kings.

So say for instance you are the querent, and your first question is, “Who [of these four boys] is the teacher’s pet?”  You ask your question, the dealer turns over a card, and the suit of that card matches the suit of the King who is the teacher’s pet.  If the card turned up is a heart, and the King of Hearts was named Johnny, then Johnny is the teacher’s pet.  Make sense?

When we were kids, these questions tended to be completely innocuous and not very interesting things like, “Whose favorite color is blue?” or “Who has the nicest laugh?”  A more adult version might consist of questions more along the lines of, “Who is better at [insert sexual activity]?” or “Who has the hottest [insert body part]?”  The sky’s the limit, but it can be surprisingly hard to come up with evocative questions on the spot, so we recommend brainstorming a list of question ideas to keep handy any time you intend to play.

Once you have determined the answer to a question by turning up one card, you place that card face up under the King with the matching suit, then lay two more cards face down on top of it.  This is key!  Remember not to look at the two additional cards, and keep them with the right King.

Continue to ask questions, laying the answer cards on top of the corresponding King along with two cards face down each time, until you run out of cards.  The number of cards in the deck minus the four Kings is divisible by three, so it should work out evenly, unless you’re doing something crazy or you’re missing cards.

Once all of the cards have been distributed (and all but three of your burning questions answered!) it’s time to discover what your future life with each boy might be like.  Start by turning over all cards that are face down, but keep them with their respective Kings.  In this stage of the game, hearts represent love, clubs represent children, diamonds represent money, and spades represent fights.  By counting the number of cards in each suit under a given King, and weighing the value of the cards, you can sketch out how much love and money, and how many fights and kids, you can expect from your future with that boy.  Higher numbered cards and face cards represent greater passion, high dollar amounts, smarter kids, and bigger fights.  Lower numbered cards represent cooler or gentler feelings, lower funds, dumber kids, and small arguments.  An ace of diamonds indicates that you will be millionaires.  An ace of spades, or seven spades of any value on one King, represent divorce.

The dealer is responsible for interpreting the life represented by each group of cards, and she can embellish as her skill and imagination permit.  :)

Finally, we come to the conclusion.  The querent now takes up the three cards that were set aside face down at the beginning of the game, shuffles them and orders them as desired, then hands them to the dealer.  The dealer explains that the first card determines who the querent really likes, and turns up the first card.  The suit determines which King holds the querent’s heart.  The second card turned up reveals which of the King-boys has feelings for the querent, and at last, the third card determines whom the querent will marry.  In lucky cases, all three cards will fall on the same King.

After exhausting the potential love scenarios of your homeroom class or office, remember the always popular movie star round! This is a particularly good option when the querent is already spoken for, as it eases some of the anxiety brought on by toying with the future of a current relationship.

I very much hope you enjoy playing this little game, and if you have any questions or comments, please do let me know!  Regardless of how many Kings or Queens are in your court, I hope you all had a lovely and happy Valentine’s day, and I wish you all the love in the world.  Aces.


*Rules from the ca. 1989 incarnation, recollected and annotated with much nostalgic giggling by my amazing elementary school friends T and H.  Love you!


A whiskey anecdote

When my father was a boy growing up in rural Blue Grass, Iowa, my grandfather had one rule about curfew:  You can stay out as late as you want, but you have to get up when I say.

All in all, my dad was a pretty good kid.  Did his homework.  Played nice.  Kept clean.  One night, though, he stretched his legs a little, stayed out having some fun, and didn’t come home until nearly morning.

Grandpa woke him up again before dawn.

Well aware of the rules, my dad could only relinquish his warm bed and get dressed and ready to follow orders.  Grandpa made sure he was up, then handed him a shovel.

Now, I want you to go outside, he said, and dig up two earthworms.

Well, my dad was a bit confused, as you can imagine, but he did as he was told, and when he had found two earthworms under the  soil, he came back inside to find my grandfather sitting silently at the kitchen table with two glasses.  One contained water; the other held a tall shot of bourbon whiskey.  He gestured for my dad to have a seat.

I imagine in this moment that my grandfather took his time getting around to explaining, letting my dad squirm a little like those worms he had dragged in, in the early morning light.  Finally, though, he told his son to put one of the worms in the cup of water.  He did, and the worm swam around calmly.

Then he gestured for the second worm to go into the glass of bourbon.  Dad followed his instructions, and the second worm writhed violently in the alcohol.

Now, what does that teach you? he asked.

Dad paused warily.

Grandpa didn’t let him panic too long.  He just looked at him with an honest face and said:

“If you drink whiskey, you’ll never have worms.”

Love you and your traditions, FWS.  You are missed.

Your girl,

Keys to the Hidden Door: Part II

Keys and Spiritism

Even the name “skeleton key” makes it hard to ignore the connection between this former household essential and the beyond.  Although the name came simply from the shape resembling that of a hollow skull on a bony frame, skeleton keys seem to have an inherent ghostly quality and inspire thoughts of séances, mediums, and hauntings.  Granted, a part of this is due to the fact that skeleton keys have fallen out of use over the last century and remain as keepsakes from a bygone time, but it is the purpose of the key that holds its power.  The skeleton key was the one master key that could unlock all doors in a household.  By extension, it is not hard to imagine their potency as a symbol in breaking through barriers and passage through liminal zones.

As antiques, skeleton keys make for nice channel points for relating to the past, our ancestors, and ghosts in the home.  Not surprisingly, there is a wealth of folklore about keys and keyholes relating to spirits and ghosts.  A few select examples include:

  1. Spirits come through the keyhole and blow out lamps.
  2. If there is a ghost in the house and you see it, take a door key and throw at the ghost and then it cannot harm you.
  3. When a person dies who has sinned a little during his life, he should be buried with a key in his pocket so that he can open the gates to heaven with little trouble.

In this season, when the veil is thin, it might be nice to set up an altar with a skeleton key and some ferns (a plant that also aides in opening doors).

As part of my Hunter’s Moon ritual this year, I did a variation on the key candle from Part I, with remarkable results.  In case it inspires some ideas for you, here is how it went!

I started with a small, plain white votive candle
that had been dressed with oil
and my own intentions.

Before beginning, I had selected a particular key for this ritual.  Holding it over the flame, I meditated on obtaining access to my desired outcome.  (Be careful during this phase — remember the key is metal, so the handle can get very hot!  Put it down on stone or glass periodically if it gets too hot.)

When the key was sufficiently warm and I felt it humming with the intended energy, I pushed the key with steady motion into the side of the candle, as though sliding it slowly into a lock.

To my utter astonishment, as I pressed the singing iron against the white candle, a sudden rush of midnight black streamed down the candle like free flowing blood and pooled on the table beneath.

Overcoming my surprise, I quickly realized this was caused by the liquidized molten wax being instantly colored by the soot that had accumulated on the key from the smoke and flame of the candle, creating a river of pure black wax.

I continued to press the key forward into the candle, occasionally removing it for reheating.  Once the key had reached about the middle of the candle (but just before the wick), I began turning to the right, being careful to turn it back to its normal axis before removing it, thus creating a mold inside the candle conformed precisely to the shape of my chosen key.

After letting both parts cool, I now have a lock-and-key candle for all of my key spell needs!  So whether I’m working through an emotional block, working towards that shiny new apartment, or catching up with great-great-great-great-great aunt Mila, I can simply light the candle, turn the key, and away we go.

My dad always told me that if I played with fire I would wet the bed.

I decided it was worth the risk.


Keys to the Hidden Door: Part I

For our final installments in this cycle of posts about keys, let’s consider keys in the misty realm of dreams, knowing, secrecy and spiritism!

Keys in Dreams

Now, depending on who you ask, you will get 10,000 different answers for what it means to dream about any given thing.  The folklore collections, for instance, yielded two interpretations: to dream of a key means success, or dream of a key, and you will discover a secret.  Gustavus Hindman Miller’s 1901 dream guide provides the following interpretations of key dreams for ladies: keys denote unexpected changes; if lost, unpleasant adventures; if found, domestic peace or brisk turns to business.  If broken, the key bodes separation through death or jealousy, and lost options.  If a girl should dream of a lost key to a “personal ornament” means quarrels with a lover and distress; if given away, poor judgment in conversation and a bad reputation.

In addition, this turn-of-the-20th-century guide dictates that to dream of unlocking a door points to a new lover, perhaps one in which you have misplaced confidence, and locking a door indicates successful selection of a husband!  One I found particularly unique, is that a dream of being unable to find a keyhole means that you will unconsciously injure a friend.  I’m kind of proud of Gustavus for not automatically jumping from this dream image to an analogy of a failed sexual encounter!

In general, I shy away from prescriptive dream dictionaries, and instead I find it helpful when deciphering a particular dream image to do some free association on what that image evokes in my mind and memory.  It also sometimes helps to imagine that each element of my dream represents some aspect of my own self.

Another thing to keep in mind with dream interpretation as with anything is context.  Context, context, context.  If in your dream you lose a key, and you wake with feelings of anxiety, perhaps this signifies fears of loss of security, or fears of exposure, for example.  If you throw a key away carelessly in your dream, maybe you are ready to give up your secrets and liberate yourself.  If you find a key, maybe it means just that — you will find the key to a waking puzzle.  I find that there is a lot of crossover between the magical aspects of an object and its dream symbology — once you start looking at one, the other begins to seem much more intuitive.

One last hint from the folklore annals:  “A door key placed upside down near your bed will banish bad dreams and produce peaceful sleep.”  How handy!  A nice little witchy and easily-acquired dream catcher.

Keys, Secrecy and Revelation

Just as keys can be used for both opening and closing locks, they can also represent equally either the binding or loosing of power, people, and even information.  Say you have a feeling that you’re ready to leave behind, but you just can’t seem to let it go.  Ever had the feeling of wanting to lock something away and bury the key?  Try doing just that!  Well, at least you can infuse a key with the power of putting that feeling away and bury the key.  This might also be a good spell against gossip, or for keeping someone quiet.  Be careful, though, because when (not if… when) that key gets un-buried , you’ll have to be prepared for the consequences.

Tied to the power of secrecy, and well-known from our dealings with keys in love, the key is a striking symbol of trust.  But it is also a harbinger of tests and temptation.  Think back to the story of La Barbe Bleue, in which the terrible Bluebeard entrusts his young bride with all the keys of his household, granting her total access to every wondrous room but one.  This room carries the grisly remains of Bluebeard’s former wives who failed this test, and when the key is dropped in their blood by the horrified young bride, no matter how hard she scrubs, the key reveals the truth of her betrayal.

If you are trying to fight temptation, try using a key to overcome your weakness.  Imagine the key like Bluebeard’s key, and practice carrying it without giving in to its seductions.  Over time, start envisioning that same key as an instrument of agency — by the end, you carry the key to your own willpower, and it will remain as an emblem of your strength, having overcome your undesired impulses.

On the other side of the coin, say you’re having trouble obtaining information that you seek, and you want to do some magical work to help you break through the barriers.  (Looking for personal insight?  Wondering if it’s really love?  Combating writer’s block??)  Try making an unlocking candle to light while you visualize a positive outcome.  This couldn’t be easier.  Find a candle that you like, preferably with a smooth surface, and a relatively flat key that strikes your fancy.  Press the key into the side of the candle, either up or down, depending on your intentions and using your instincts.

Dress or cleanse the candle, or take any other steps that you feel will lend power to your goal.  Then 1, 2, 3, LIGHT!

…et voilà!  Fiat lux!

Think of it as turning on the light as practice while you work to turn on the bulb above your head.



Keys, Understanding and Prophecy

As a symbol of opening the ways to knowledge, keys can also unlock the way to enlightenment, initiation, and even shamanic death/rebirth.  (For inspiration, read MacDonald’s “The Golden Key” or Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden”!)  There is so much more to be said about this, but that is perhaps too deep a topic for this series.

Not surprisingly, keys turn up in many folkloric bits of prophecy and methods of divination.  Let’s highlight a few, shall we?

  1. If a wife’s keys persist in getting rusty, it is a sign that some friend is saving money for her.  [Arrow’s note: hmm… I really don’t know what to make of this one.  Leave a comment if you have some insight!]
  2. If you hand a pregnant woman a key and she picks it up by the hook end, she will have a boy.  If she picks it up by the end that goes in the door, the child will be a girl.
  3. Or: Tie a rusty key on a string and suspend it over the abdomen of the mother while she is lying down.  When the key stops swinging, if it’s parallel to the length of the mother’s body, the baby is a boy.  If the key stops crosswise, the baby is a girl.  [What is it about rusty keys?]

This last bit makes me think a key might make a delightful pendulum, if you’re into pendulum divination.

And finally, a series of practices with keys and Bibles:

If a key is placed on an open Bible, and a certain verse repeated, the key will turn.

If you want a wish granted, open the Bible to Ruth 1:16-18.  Place a key there, with the top end sticking out.  Tie the Bible firmly closed. Hold it, and repeat over and over the above passages.  If your wish will be granted, the key will turn slowly, even though you try to hold it.

[These passages read: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will be buried.”]

Insert a key in a prayer book.  The key should stick out about an inch or so.  Place two fingers from each hand on each side of the key and say, “Ruth, Ruth, your people will be my people and your God will be my God.  Give me the name (or initials) of the one I’ll marry.”  Then start the alphabet and when the key starts to turn, use that letter for the initial or the name.

As I recall, this practice figures somehow in the novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  (Not the most trenchant of works, but a time-passer.)  I have never tried it, though, and I am unsure of the relevance of Ruth in these practices.  Why that chapter?  If you have tried this, or if you have any additional information, I’d sure love to hear from you.  Maybe I will try contacting Cory from New World Witchery to see if he has any ideas; he seems like he’d be the one to know!**

The last key and Bible trick for learning the name of your future spouse reminds me a lot of some divinatory games we used to play as kids.  I might have to have a post later on of my favorite slumber party occult games. :)

The next post will be my last installment on keys (at least as part of this cycle), but I will try to end on a spooky note in honor of the crispy creepiness of autumn.




**Update! Cory gave us a lovely shout out on the Divination and Destiny episode of New World Witchery (you can find a link in the Comments).  Thank you, Cory!  I also had a chance to chat about the bible & key method described above with some friends, and we came up with some proposed answers as to why Ruth would be a choice passage for this practice.

One possibility is that the chosen  passage sounds like it might have some oral-formulaic components, which would make it better known and easier to remember and recite.  Another perspective was that the cited statement is one of complete devotion, so it might be used kind of like saying, “If you grant my wish/answer my question, I will devote my life to you,” and a confirmation of utter trust in the outcome.

An idea I had about it being Ruth in particular is that, as far as I’m aware, the book of Ruth is the only book named for a woman besides the book of Esther.  Because the marriage divination games seem to have been practiced more often by young ladies than young men, Ruth would have made a very strong choice of a female figure with biblical power to call upon that was still approachable, where one might feel slightly awkward about beseeching Mary or Queen Esther, for instance, for a direct response in such small matters.

Readers, if you have any other suggestions or insights, please feel free to leave a comment or email me. :)

Keys in luck, success, and love (and baking!)

Today let’s take a look at the use of keys in the areas of luck and success, as well as keys as symbols in love and relationships!

While digging through American folklore collections for references to keys, I found several allusions to the luck brought by carrying a key on your person like a charm.  If one key just doesn’t seem like enough, three keys on a chain are said to bring you health, wealth, and love, much like the Keys of the Granary mentioned in the last post.

I personally think keys make an excellent magical tool for self-assertion, confidence and success.  For instance, think of the expression “carrying the keys” as having a connotation akin to “wearing the pants,” without the gender inequality implications.  If you hold the keys, you are in the driver’s seat.  You are taking charge, starting the engine on your new ventures, and you have the means to unlock any obstacles and access your utmost desires.

Although a key would make an excellent tool or charm for any new venture such as a new job, a new hobby, or a wish for a new car, the key seems to have extra potency when it comes to luck in a new home.  I read that upon entering a new home, one should bring a key for good luck.  The source of this rule failed to specify whether this refers to a spare key to the house itself (certainly a way to avoid bad luck!) or to an additional key carried solely for its symbolic power.  Either way, I don’t think you can go wrong!

Another bit of related lore stated that you can put green leaves in the keyholes upon entering a new house for good luck.  I deeply fancy this idea!  It’s like smokeless smudging.  The green of life brightens all of those little spaces to allow energy to flow through, and cleans out those crannies where negativity can sometimes get stuck.  Each time you stick in your key, imagine you’re stirring up that green energy and dissipating it about the house, like so much spiritual potpourri.  :)

So, if you’re looking to foster some success in new ventures, try sporting a key charm on a necklace, or slip a specially selected key onto your everyday keychain to open up good luck.

For one last home-y application of the key in luck: when baking a mince or other sort of pie, make the cut-outs of the top crust with a thimble and crimp the edges with an old-fashioned key.  Evidently the superstition behind this practice has been forgotten, but it is thought to bring good luck as well.  Besides, it sounds rather fun. ^-^  When you’re out at the antique store, keep an eye out for different types of old keys so you can use the handles for various styles of pie crust edges.  Be sure to wash them well first.  (*Tip!*  I also read on a cooking forum that once you have made the cut-outs in the top crust with your thimble and covered your pie with it, the holes will have gotten slightly larger, and you can place the small leftover circles back inside the holes for a decorative design, while the gaps still allow steam to escape.  Clever!)

Now, any good folksy witch worth her salt knows that where you find good luck you also find bad.  (Everything with the power to heal has the power to poison, non?)  So let’s take a moment to acknowledge the role of keys in bad luck and bad omens.  Culled from Ms. Arrow’s giant reams of numbered folkloric bits of wisdom:

  1. Put your keys on the table, and trouble will come.
  2. Don’t put a key on a table, or there will be an argument.
  3. Do not look through a keyhole, for you will see the devil.

Yikes!  Okay, kids.  So keys + table = no-no, and don’t go looking through any keyholes (unless, of course, you have a stye, or in case you really *want* to see the devil, in which case, go for it).  I suspect the first two of these three come from the likelihood that keys on a table will promptly be moved, misplaced, or buried and lost, prompting an argument over where your damn keys have gone and who last saw them.  As for the third, well — let’s just say the author of that little maxim probably was doing something behind closed doors that they didn’t want you to witness!


Now onto the good stuff


It’s perhaps not such a stretch to imagine that keys make excellent symbols for use in spells about love and relationships.  How often have you heard expressions alluding to someone having the “key to your heart”?  (If you suddenly have that magnificent keyboard riff from Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” running through your mind, you are a wanderer after my own heart.)

Madonna, helpfully, emphasizes the very sexual symbolism of the key-and-lock scenario that should not be overlooked.  This instantly reminds me of the cover of my dog-eared copy of Pierre Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, featuring the steamy and controversial 18th century Fragonard masterpiece, “Le Verrou”:

The Bolt

All trashy romans-à-lettres aside, keys make for a striking metaphorical summation of the difficulty and joy of relationships, sexual or platonic.  It takes trust to give up the security we use to guard our hearts, and once we do, we invest much in our reliance on the keyholder.  Say you are hoping to “get in good” with someone, and a honey jar is on your list of tactics.  Try charging a key with the energy to represent the key to that person’s good will, and put it in the jar with your other goodies.  A key charm would also make for a touching and, if you choose, provocative gift for a close friend or lover.  Put a small key in a sachet with some sensual herbs and oils, and voilà, you have yourself a mojo mojo bag.

Alternately, if you’re looking to guard your heart from someone who pursues it, try hiding or burying a key, or locking away a written charm of protection in a small box and carrying the key with you at all times.  If you’re trying to learn to open your heart, create a ritual in which you repeatedly open a small lock to get comfortable with the feeling, and if you’re seeking, hang the key in your window for potential suitors to notice.

A special note to those dreaming of lots of little shoes:  Garlic placed in the keyhole of a bride and groom on the door to their honeymoon suite will guarantee immediate pregnancy.  (“Guarantee” was the word choice of the folklorist; I take no responsibility for the failure OR success of this little gem.)  Um… use with caution.  And only with serious consideration, and unreserved consent from the happy couple.

There you have it!  Up next in our key cycle: keys in spiritism, secrecy and revelation!  That’s a lot to cover, so maybe we will split it into two additional posts.  Either way, I hope you join me as we continue to wander through the magical potential of the everyday utensil the key. Until the next post, I wish you happy wanderings and much success in your endeavors.  Now go find a key you like and get lucky!


The Keys to it All

Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to mull over exactly what was inside that iron chest unlocked by the tiny golden key, I think it’s finally time to take a closer look at the key itself: its folklore, its myths, its symbolism, and some of its magical uses!  Most of us use keys everyday, but we don’t always think about how much power — of many different kinds — keys can represent, and how we can use them in ways more subtle and fantastic than just locking and unlocking our doors.

One of my first starting places for ideas on the magical associations of just about anything is the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols by Jean C. Cooper.  Ms. Cooper describes the key as “an axial symbol which includes all powers of opening and closing, binding and loosing.  The key also denotes liberation, knowledge, the mysteries, initiation.”

From these short phrases alone we can distill many uses for keys: in opening and closing doors and boundaries; binding and loosing power, forces, and information; unlocking hidden knowledge and accessing previously forbidden realms.  In The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems by William Thomas and Kate Pavitt, the three Keys of the Granary are worn for love, wealth and happiness, so we can imagine some uses for keys with those goals in mind.

For other sources of inspiration for my own personal practice, I also turn to myth and folk stories.  Once again, Cooper references keys in Graeco-Roman mythology as an attribute of Hecate (in this case, Hecate Klêidouchos “Keeper of the Keys”), and also of Persephone (as mistress of the Other World) and Cybele/Kubileya (earth goddess of walls and fortresses).  In addition to the Grimm’s Golden Key story posted earlier, the key features prominently in other stories such as Blue Beard, The Secret Garden, and The Golden Key by George MacDonald, some of which we’ll discuss later.

It’s helpful to remember that various kinds of keys can evoke different uses.  A car key might inspire different feelings in you than a skeleton key, for instance.  A car key might be a great choice if you’re doing a spell for wealth, control, or expediency, but a skeleton key fits the bill when working with ancestors and spirit guides.  If you can find them, according to Cooper, silver keys represent temporal power, whereas gold keys represent spiritual power.  I personally tend to favor skeleton keys, since I feel a strong pull towards the past in my own practice (and they just look so witchy!).  Another nice feature of skeleton keys is that they are designed as a master key to unlock all doors in a building, so they make excellent tools for all kinds of workings.

Let’s take a look at some of these uses, shall we?  To start us off on this little wander, let’s examine the role of keys in health and protection.  Here is a list of some American folk remedies that make use of keys to combat various physical ailments.  (For variety, and just because I found them interesting ^-^, I have also included some folklore surrounding keyholes.)

  1. To cure a headache, drop a cold key down your back.  A similar method, tying a key on a piece of string and letting it go down your back, can also be used to stop nervous hiccoughs.
  2. Another folk remedy posits that a headache sufferer possesses evil spirits.  To be rid of them (performed on behalf of someone else), make a mixture of oil and vinegar, drop a key in it and say magic words while the person is lying down.
  3. A church door key pressed in the hand of an epileptic will relieve his convulsions.
  4. If you think you are getting a stye, look through a keyhole with the affected eye, and it will disappear.
  5. Many remedies using keys are listed to stop a nosebleed:  Place a door key on the back of your neck; put a cold key on your nose; dangle one to several keys down the center of your back next to your skin; try a bunch of keys and a pinch of salt at the back of your neck.  Some references specify that the key must be made of brass.
  6. A certain source stated that her mother could stop bleeding by putting some of the blood on a rag and sticking it in a keyhole while she repeated certain words.

If only we knew what those words were!  But I’m sure you can come up with something.

The cures above can help protect you from physical symptoms, but keys can also be used as protection against otherworldly dangers.  For instance:

  1. Wear a gold key to deflect the evil eye.
  2. Keep a key in a baby’s cradle to lock the baby home, so the fairies cannot steal it.*
  3. If you make a silver key and put it in a keyhole, harmful witches cannot enter through that passage.

*A word of friendly reminder and caution: please use common sense and do not put a small key of any kind with a baby at any time.  These bits of folklore are more for inspiration than direct instruction.  A good alternative would be to find a large plush key that is baby-safe, or paint a stencil of a key on the crib to keep your baby safe.

When it comes to health and protection, why use keys?  It makes sense to me that keys would be a good tool to counteract bleeding, as a way of binding and shutting tight the “doors” that have opened in the body that are allowing the blood to escape.  Keys are a representation of security in general.  If you want to keep something safe, you can say you keep it “under lock & key.”  Why not try hanging a key from the ceilings or window sills of your home for symbolic protection?

Up next time: Keys for Luck and Success!  Until then, stay healthy and safe, and don’t forget your keys.


The Cobbler and the Changeling

Earlier this evening I had two pals over to the house, and we made some delicious blueberry cobbler.  This is one of my favorite desserts, especially when the berries are handpicked, and *especially* when the berries are picked at the height of summer in the mossy swamp borderlands that the moose like to frequent.  Mm-mmm!

While my friends and I waited for the cobbler to bake and we were chatting and munching on cheese and cornichons, my LO came home from the studio with an exciting bit of lore he had heard!

Evidently, some German and/or British Isles traditions say that when you suspect your baby has been taken and a changeling left in its place, the only way to get your baby back is to make the changeling laugh.  And one of the recommended ways to do this (and a fascinating addition to our list) is by boiling water or soup over the fire in eggshells! The theory goes that the changeling will take one look at what you are doing and find it so ludicrous that it will drop its mask and, chortling some comment about never seeing anything like your behavior in 400+ years, its elvish cohorts will sweep in with your baby in tow and swap them out.

Now, I personally find the idea of changelings (and doppelgangers, for that matter) pretty horrific.  I suppose that could be because it symbolizes the frightening prospect that every individual, no matter how apparently good or innocent, has the power and potential to do harm, or perhaps it relates to the fear of being misunderstood or the danger of slander if you’re talking about your own doppelganger.  But for some reason this anecdote about the eggshells makes changelings seem to me slightly less threatening, and I’m rather comforted by the idea of  humoring them into kindness.

I can imagine this story standing in as some good advice:  If you know someone is innately good, but you recognize that they’re starting to do bad things, don’t be too hard on them, because sometimes people get “taken” by a situation, and their reactions can feel out of their own control.  Try to focus their attention on the lighter side of life, to show them that it’s not so serious, and maybe you can turn them around again.

Food for thought, I guess.  Now after eating all that cobbler my lips and tongue will be purplish blue for days.  Kind of like a little demon spirit version of me.  Kind of makes a girl start to think about mischief.  Isn’t cobbler wonderful?  *g*


Alma and the almighty Eggshell

My paternal grandmother was named Alma.  A comfortingly plump woman with thinning baby-blond hair and large pink-rimmed glasses on a gold chain, she cooked everything with Crisco, never used a sponge (only dishrags), and I never saw her wear anything other than a house dress, pantyhose, and giant fake pearl clip-on earrings.  Her favorite term of endearment was “Louse Poop,” and whenever she wasn’t really following a conversation, she would sigh, “yeah, right…” as though she had never heard the phrase spoken with a sarcastic tone.

This woman left her parents at age 14 to be a domestic servant, then to teach in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie, and she taught me how to “puss” my soup if it was too hot.  I didn’t find out “puss” wasn’t a real English verb meaning “to blow on something to cool it” until I was about 20.  (It means “kiss” in Swedish.)  I never heard my grandmother talk about religion, or saw her go to church.  The regular weekend routine usually just involved bacon, eggs scrambled with milk and sausage, and bourbon highballs at 4:30 p.m.

Alma was also the queen of outlandish home remedies.  Have athlete’s foot?  Go walk in the dewy grass at sunrise.  Got a stye?  Rub a gold wedding band on wool and hold that on your eye.  My dad always laughed when these cures came up in conversation, but secretly I believed in, and desperately wanted to know them all.  Heartbreakingly, I never got the chance to sit down and talk to her about them.

So over the last several years, I have made many futile attempts to find examples of other remedies like Alma’s, and to figure out where they come from.  Earlier in the summer I renewed my search again, and this time, finally, I had tremendous luck.

By grace, I stumbled upon UCLA’s archive of folk medicine.  Not only did it contain variants of Alma’s foot-dew and wedding ring eye cures, but I was able, for the first time, to shed some light on one of her more confounding suggestions — putting an eggshell over a bleeding nose.  I entered a few search terms in their database, and came up with the following:

“If one’s nose bleeds and will not stop bleeding, take an egg shell and let three drops of blood fall in it and throw into the fire, thereupon the bleeding will stop.”

I stared at this prescription for hours.  I found myself completely fascinated by the symbolism and ritual of the cure.  And on top of that, I was transfixed by the source.

Ethnicity Of Origin Pennsylvania German

Now, as far as I knew, Alma’s heritage was a mixture of German and Swedish, and the all-American who-knows-what.  In a recent endeavor to uncover my family history, I’d confirmed a rumor that my mother’s mother’s line was Pennsylvania Dutch — we landed in PA in 1732 and camped there for a good hundred years before moving west toward Ohio and Iowa.  This had elicited a good deal of excitement on my end, as I’d just recently learned about the Pennsylvania Dutch folk-magic tradition known as Pow Wow or Braucherei.  Now I learn that I may have some Pennsylvania Dutch folk traditions on my father’s side as well!

I immediately went out and hunted down used copies of some massive collections of Midwestern folk beliefs listed as sources by UCLA, and have been perusing them with glee ever since they arrived.  In case someone else out there is looking for long lost remedies or simply carries a torch for some old-time superstition, I’d like to share some of these  curious remnants every now and again.  To start us off, I bring to you now a collection of folk wisdom regarding Alma’s favorite coagulator: the eggshell.

  1. To cure boils, eat eggshells.
  2. [But…] If you handle too many egg shells, you will get warts.
  3. After you eat an egg, crush the shells to avoid harm or bad luck.
  4. To protect against caterpillars, scatter about your cabbage bed shells of eggs blessed for the Easter feast.
  5. Chickens will lay if fed ground eggshells.
  6. [Not just for chickens…] Keeping eggshells will cause fertility.
  7. [Alternately…] Keeping eggshells will ward off fire.
  8. For epilepsy, use eggshell tea.
  9. To dream about broken eggshells means gossip.
  10. In order to be assured that a cake will rise, put the eggshells in the cupboard until the cake is baked.
  11. If you make a wish on the first Easter egg you break and put the shells under the pillow at night, your wish will come true.
  12. Eggshells burned during a thunderstorm will protect the house against lightning.
  13. Crush eggshells before throwing them away, or the witches may use them for boats.

Hm… sounds to me like kind of a cozy way to travel!  Or as Alma would say, “Absolutely elegant!”  Until next time…