Cunning Folk and Conjurors: Folk Magic in Colonial Virginia

The use of folk magic may seem foreign and exotic to many of us in the 21st century. If we look closer, though, it is apparent that some modern Americans still practice it today – even if they don’t realize it. Have you ever hunted for a four-leaf clover? Have you ever hung a horseshoe over your door? If so, you’re participating in a kind of folk magic.

Folk magic is (and was) thought to be a way to influence forces, seen and unseen, for good or for ill. It is sometimes referred to as “low” magic, not because it was seen as evil, but because it was passed down generation to generation rather than learned from books or formal tutors. “High” magic has its own fascinating history, but this blog post focuses on the everyday magic that 18th century Virginians, both black and white, practiced. Hoping to ward off evil and bring peace, prosperity, and abundance into their homes, some of these early Americans used magical means to their ends.

Europeans and Africans in British North America brought with them the spiritual, religious, and magical traditions of their homelands. The blending of these traditions became the bedrock for future iterations of American folk magic. One modern archaeologist says that this blending process makes it hard to tell exactly who was using what folk tradition while creating some of the material culture of folk magic; it is not always clear from the archaeological record exactly who made an object and what that object’s intended purpose was.[1]

One of the things that may have contributed to the cross-cultural blending is the similarities between English and African folk magic traditions.  Both groups recognized that there were some people who were “set apart” from the rest of the group.  These individuals were believed to possess special powers that made them respected, feared, or both. African and English traditions also shared a belief in magical objects, even everyday objects, that could be imbued with power. And lastly, both groups believed in the power of burying magical objects for protection – or for malice.

People thought talented in the magical arts were known as “cunning folk” in the English/English-American tradition and as “conjurors” in the African/African-American tradition. Cunning folk were not witches, who were thought to inhabit the fringes of society, but rather “practitioners of magic who healed the sick and the bewitched, who told fortunes, identified thieves, [and] induced love.”[2] This description of cunning folk is very similar to W.E.B. Du Bois’s definition of the conjuror, “the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong . . .”[3]

The rest of Du Bois’s quote, however, highlights an essential difference between white cunning folk and the enslaved conjuror. The conjuror was also “. . . the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people.”[4] Despite their many similarities, enslaved conjurors and cunning folk operated in very different realities. In Du Bois’s estimation, the conjuror did more than just take care of the physical and spiritual needs of the enslaved; he or she took on the weight of slavery itself.

Both conjurors and cunning folk created magical charms and charged objects with magical meaning. At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we found an excellent example of an object charged with meaning. A carnelian bead excavated on the property may indicate that a powerful conjuror might have lived here during the Washington’s time. This bead is similar to two found in Barbados and Archaeologist Jerome Handler asserts that these carnelian beads were the product of Cambay, India and were indications of the status of the person with whom they were buried.[5] Dave Muraca, director of archaeology at Ferry Farm, describes “all three beads” as “generally reddish-orange color” with “tapered ends and cylindrical shapes. Each one has 8 longitudinal facets and 4 beveled facets at each end. The main difference between the Washington site bead and the Barbadian beads is size, with the Barbadian beads being almost twice as long as the one recovered at the Washington farm.”[6]

carnelian-bead-01

Multiple views of the Carnelian bead excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

 

Cunning folk also made objects with magical meaning. Written charms, or amulets, were popular since they were easy to make and could be worn on the body. These charms often served as protection for people and livestock against witches’ attacks. An example of these charms can be found in Colonial Williamsburg’s Special Collections. This small piece of paper, dating to about 1700, promised to protect the wearer from “any mannor [sic] of Witchcraft or Evle [sic] spirit.” The amulet invokes the power of faith and the intervention of Jesus Christ on behalf of the afflicted woman. It closes with “amen, amen, amen,” and “fiat, fiat, fiat;” “fiat” being the Latin translation of ‘amen.” “Fiat” and “amen” had been used together since the 2nd century, particularly when the prayer it ended was one of condemnation.[7]

SCMS2004.14; Witchcraft Amulet; 18th c. ?

Witchcraft amulet, circa 18th century.  Credit: Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller,  Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

It was not uncommon for black and white practitioners of magic, to bury magical objects for protection. The nature of these objects may have been different, but the intent was the same – warding off evil and restoring peace to the household. At Ferry Farm, archaeologists have discovered whole oysters deliberately buried in the stone-lined cellar of the Washington house. The act of burying the oysters, which were seen as magical objects in the African/African American community, was likely an effort to protect the home. They were often used in burial rituals and were associated with death and the afterlife; an association that makes the oyster shells found at Ferry Farm all the more intriguing.

whole-oyster-shells-1

Whole oyster shell excavated from the Washington house cellar at Ferry Farm.

English/English-Americans also buried objects for protection, but some of the objects they buried were man-made rather than a product of the natural world. Witches bottles, often glass bottles filled with pins, nails, and even human urine, were designed to cure the afflicted of his or her bewitchment. A witch bottle found near in Virginia Beach, Virginia, known as the Great Neck witch bottle, dates to 1690-1750. Archaeologist M. Chris Manning describes it as being, “[a] small, narrow, light green glass medicine vial was found buried in an inverted [upside-down] position” containing 25 brass pins and 3 iron nails. It may have also contained the urine of the bewitched at some point.[8]   These bottles were designed to hurt witches; their pins and needles were thought to injure those who placed malevolent spells on the innocent. In both the African/African-American and the English/English-American tradition, these buried objects were tasked with banishing evil forces in an effort to bring in positivity and peace to the household.

These are just a few examples of the similarities between the African and the English folk magic traditions. There are significant differences, in part because “magic” was part of African cosmology, meaning religion and magic were tied together, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ended and the other began. This is different from the English tradition, where religion and folk magic were seen as separate, at least officially. Religious and secular authority figures in colonial America condemned the use of folk magic, but this did little to stem the tide of magic’s popularity.

The next time you pick up a lucky penny or even cross your fingers, remember that you are participating in a tradition older than America itself. While we may not make witches bottles or bury oyster shells anymore, there are plenty of instances where we seek luck, protection, love, and other good vibes through essentially “magical” means.

Kelly Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

[1] Christopher C. Fennell, “Conjuring Boundaries: Inferring Past Identities from Religious Artifacts,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp.284.

[2] Owen Davies. Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History, (London: Continuum), 2007, p. VII.

[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches, (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.), 1903, 211.

[4] Ibid. https://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/captivepassage/arrival/arr019.html Accessed 17 October 2016.

[5] Jerome S. Handler, “An African-Type Healer/Diviner and His Grave Goods: A Burial from a Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 1, No.1, (June 1997), 91-130.

[6] David Muraca, “Murder and Magic at the Washington Farm,” George Washington Foundation, Fredericksburg, VA, unpublished report, 9.

[7] “amen amen, fiat fiat: theological, liturgical, bureaucratic”  Douglass Galbi, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.purplemotes.net/2014/06/01/amen-amen-fiat-fiat/

[8] M. Chris Manning, “Homemade Magic: Concealed Deposits in Architectural Contexts in the Eastern United States,” Master’s Thesis, Ball State, 2012, 114.

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