Category Archives: Living Tradition

Southern Cunning – folklore and living tradition

Aaron Oberon is the author of Southern Cunning – a book about folkloric witchcraft in the Southern States of America. I asked him some questions about his book and the traditions he’s working with, which he has answered below…

Can you give me a flavour of southern states folklore? What’s unique to the area?

Most of our folklore directly deals with the atrocities that have happened in the South. Slavery, racism, and genocide are all seeped into the soil and stories. Human evil is one of the biggest reoccurring themes throughout Southern folklore, and while some folks try to ignore the continuation of racism and oppression around them these stories speak volumes. There’s a reason the genre of “Southern Gothic” exists, because there is a macabre cast to most of our folklore. There’s a plant that can be found all throughout the more humid southern locations called “Spanish Moss” and in Savanah, Georgia folks say it won’t grow anywhere that innocent blood was spilled. Even the tales we tell about plants remind us of human atrocity. There is also an intense focus on the community and what it means to be a part of the community. The breaking of taboos, the inversion of norms, and the process of “othering” those that live outside of what the community considers correct. More specifically, living life as a Christian or a Non-Christian, and the perceived immorality of being Non-Christian. When witches, the quintessential Non-Christians, appear in folklore they are often marginalized and living on the fringes of their communities. Witch stories can be some of the most interesting because they often directly challenge commonly held beliefs in southern culture. When the witch come knocking to borrow milk you have two choices. You can stand by the value of “Southern Hospitality” and help out your neighbor in which case the witch can now curse you because she has something of yours. Or you can deny her the milk because of who she is, in which case she curses you for not helping her. So which do you choose? There’s no right answer, because the societal constraints shouldn’t be there to begin with. That the beauty of Southern folklore, it deals with the dark and oppressive, it forces you to address these issues of culture and discrimination, but it never gives you an answer. That’s your job to figure out.

How does folklore impact on witchcraft traditions in the south?

From a personal perspective, you can’t look towards these stories and come out the other side thinking the world is sunshine and rainbows. You have to face the atrocities that define the place where you live, and then how do you take this reflection and make something of it. You’ve read clear as day how horrible things are now what are you going to do about it? I can’t speak for how folklore is effecting witchcraft throughout the entire South, but I know that for me it’s been a process of taking action. The magic seen throughout Southern folklore is active, it clearly accomplishes a goal, and often times it seeks to right a wrong. Southern folklore demonstrates not just atrocity, but personal agency, and the impact that personal choices make on the world. Which to me is witchcraft at its core, when you take action in your craft you make an impact on the world at large.

 

What do you find exciting about this as a living tradition?

The biggest thing about a living practice is knowing one day it is going to change and that just because something is working for you now doesn’t mean you have to do that same exact thing for the rest of your journey. Witchcraft, folklore, and human beings are all constantly changing and adapting. So when I look at my practice and realize that something no longer fits, I’m able to acknowledge what it brought into my life in the past, and honor that while finding something that fits better for the now.

What does bioregionalism mean to you?

That as person you are celebrating the natural environment around you in the here and now. Bioregionalism has helped me appreciate my home in a way that has truly changed my life. Spiritually its meant that I am more focused on the local spirits, local stories, and local people around me rather than looking at European models of magic and trying to make that work for me when it hasn’t. On a personal level, I always hated the South.

Tell me about the book…

Southern Cunning is a look at how to approach folklore as an informant for witchcraft. It originally started out as a journal I was writing while I went through books of American folklore and started seeing if there was a way to make this applicable to my practice. It turned out to be a major undertaking, one that changed my perspective on what witchcraft is and what it can be. A good chunk of the book focuses on a specific collection of folklore called “The Silver Bullet”, and I chose this book because of all the collections I went through Silver Bullet was the only one focused completely on witches and the details of their practices. The rest of the book is dedicated to the things that make the South what it is from the cultures in the South, its history, religion, and the land itself. My hope with Southern Cunning is that it’s accessible, fun, and gets the wheels turning for the reader. The best compliment I’ve received has been someone telling me “This inspired me to look into my local folklore and work that into my practice”.

 

Find out more about the book here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/southern-cunning 


Family traditions

How you present something has considerable impact on how people understand it. If you want something to sound like tradition, and like authentic folklore, it pays to mention Granny when framing it. I’ve noticed in Twitter’s Folklore Thursday that anything framed by the idea that it came from Granny is seldom questioned. I’ve experimented with this as well – when we talk about Yule Badger traditions and reference what Granny said, no one queries it. You are allowed to make folklore up so long as you aren’t honest about that. Talk about working with folklore and you can get into all kinds of trouble…

(Some of the things in that piece, my grandmother did say. Some she didn’t. There is no way anyone else can tell what’s what.)

 

This video was originally created for Patreon – I do one a month there, alongside a poem, a book excerpt and a newsletter. There’s also a level where I post things to people… https://www.patreon.com/NimueB if you’d like to support me.


Stonehouse Myths – a guest blog

A guest blog from Keith Healing

When I was a young lad, more years ago than seems reasonable, there were two places in my home village that kids avoided. One was a particular part of the local churchyard, a rounded cross about a metre tall close to the door of the church. It was completely unremarkable, old, eroded and covered with lichen. It was, however, loose on its base. Not so loose as to be dangerous, but quite easy to turn on its axis. It attracted the myth that it could be used to summon…something vague. Satan? Possibly. Ghosts? Maybe. In truth, it didn’t matter. What did matter was the general nasty potential of it. It was the local equivalent of Bloody Mary or Candyman, although less specific.

On a different road sat a tumbledown house. Looking back it could well have been a “pre-fab” – one of the thousands of temporary houses put up rapidly after the war to deal with the problem of the number of families made homeless by the bombs. There was still rows of them behind my first home close to Boscombe Down, an experimental air base in Wiltshire.

This place was to a different design, but was made of corrugated iron and hadn’t been occupied for years. It was set back from the road in an overgrown garden and was plainly unsafe. It also, according to local legend, had a huge, deep hole in the living room from which weird sounds would issue. It was so obviously haunted that my friends and I would dare each other to peer through the mould-covered windows on our way home from school.

These were myths with no basis in history. They were local, modern folklore that were spread amongst kids and that went no further.

I now live in Gloucestershire, in a small industrial town called Stonehouse. Like many English towns it has existed for at least 2000 years, the Stone House being its main building of note when William created his big list of taxable property in 1086. It still has a decent selection of interesting architecture dating from the early 1600s. Some of these have bricked-up windows. Some were old hospitals. There was an animal pound, although no-one knows where. What are the stories that have built up over the years, or that could have built up?

In order to answer that I started writing short, one-off tales called the Stonehouse Myths. The first was a simple story of madness and the perils of listening to the Jackdaws that infest the chimney pots. The second concerned destructive invisible wallaby-like beasts in an area of town called Little Australia. It was a bit of fun and people seemed to enjoy them.

And then I was messaged by a local woman who asked whether the Wallaby piece was based on reality because she and her family had repeatedly seen something weird by the railway line – something they called the Railway Beast.

The chances are, of course, that they were seeing Muntjac deer, strange little beasts with fat bodies, long back legs and little tusks. But it doesn’t matter. The myth persists. They see something odd and someone else describes it, albeit accidentally.

And the myth grows.

People respond to stories in a way that they respond to nothing else. If they are the right stories they are believed on a subconscious level because they connect to our primal brain and they gain power because we want to believe them.

So what might happen if something enabled these stories to breed, to gain real power?

I realised that the stories I was writing were linked, so I began re-writing. Over time they will form a novel that will explore the way a small town deals with stories when they run out of hand.

I have set up a Patreon page to enable me to distribute the chapters and, as support grows I will add more layers of detail, including maps, drawings, old documents and songs.

Welcome to Stonehouse Myths – https://www.patreon.com/StonehouseMyths

 

(A note from Nimue – Keith Healing is also the creator of The Hopeless Maine role play game, and is an excellent chap).


A guest blog from Zoe Murphy

Brightest Blessings Blog Followers!

 

Before I introduce myself properly, I’d like to give a shout out to Nimue for giving me the wonderful opportunity to be a guest blogger on this beautiful blog. It warms my babywitch heart when writers/artists/creators support and show love for each other. For this post, Nimue asked us to possibly look at ‘living traditions.’

So, babywitch you may have read…yes, I am a baby witch, a witchling, an apprentice witch or whatever you’d like to coin me as and I am about eighteen months into my amazing, eye opening, affirming, incredible journey into witchcraft and spirituality. To be honest I didn’t find witchcraft, it found me and it found me through my irreplaceable mentor, craft mother, mama witch and very, very good friend Joolz Raven Stewart. This woman is amazing and has brought about a pivotal and important change and lifelong chapter into my life.

I am now known as This Welsh Witch on my social media channels and like I said above, I’m very much in the infancy of my learning so I am a maiden so to speak! I have actually found a warm and embracing witch and spiritual community on Instagram with some badass witches who regularly share resources and ideas and support each other’s ventures all the way. I have actually learnt a lot from the World Wide Web and while it gets a bad rap, for me and my learning it has been invaluable for contacts and study. It is now part of my daily life and learning. I am actually a Hekatean neophyte and very proud to be so. I am currently studying Hekatean Applied Modern Witchcraft by using an amazing book called ‘Keeping Her Keys’ by Cindy Branden. It’s a fantastic book and resource and will take me a year and a day (a traditional witchcraft period of study) to complete all the lessons. Hecate is the most fierce, complicated and renegade goddess I’ve read about~ Queen of the Witches~ but that’s another blog post/discussion altogether…;-)

I could discuss Hecate and witchcraft for days but my particular focus with this post is Welsh mythology, legends and the gwrachod- Welsh for witches. I am fiercely and immensely patriotic and proud of our rich and deep heritage and our language (I am a frustrated non-Welsh speaker haha) and as much as I am dedicated to my goddess Hecate, I will also be honouring the country of my birth.

I have been reading a brilliant book called ‘Welsh Witchcraft, Charms and Spells’ by Marie Trevelyan and I have been researching Welsh mythology for around seven years for my debut novel, which incidentally is due out this year. The crafting and writing of my novel has taught me so much about witchcraft that I’m hoping it will provide people with a insight into the tradition of Welsh witchcraft to carry forward. The novel and subsequent series will be a large part of my little legacy I hope!

I have also started my own hashtag, the #welshwitchseries which focuses on the legends and mythological aspects of Wales. What I have come across is that there is a wealth of knowledge among people regarding Greek myths. However, there isn’t a whole lot about Welsh ones and our heritage contains such a lavish tapestry of tales, oral traditions and a wide pantheon that it seems a shame not to bring it to the fore. I have always connected so much to Cymru on a spiritual level and it’s even deeper now because I know we have a very strong mythological identity. Obviously, we have the undeniable Mabinogion but there are also so many more creatures, figures and stories within the realm of Welsh mythology.

One aspect of my witchcraft life is my homemade charm/spell bags that I have recently listed in my Etsy shop and the bags names, intentions and contents all correspond to the Welsh language, historical figures or the tales of Wales. Within the range there are bags for Harmoni, Joio, Cwtch, Seren and Pilli Pala which pertain to manifesting harmony, joy, love, peaceful sleep and transformation. I have also bags for Cerridwen, Arianrhod and Gwenllian. I think a lot of people will be familiar with those last three and these have been a focus of my #welshwitchseries posts. As part of my #welshwitchseries posts I have also been honouring several old customs and traditions such as Nos Calan Gaeaf, Nos Calan Mai and the Mari Lwyd.

Cerridwen was on the table as a possible contender for my dedication but I was drawn to Hecate instead. You could probably call Cerridwen the Welsh equivalent of Hecate and she is still a strong warrior goddess witch that you could call upon. Cerridwen represents magic, wisdom and creative inspiration and a lot of people will know about her creation of the bard Taliesin! Arianrhod is the goddess of fertility, rebirth and the weaving of time and fate. She is also strongly linked with the moon; lunar practice being embedded in witchcraft and rituals. Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd was a warrior princess of Wales and was beheaded defending the country.

To conclude this post, in terms of my own ‘living tradition’ I have tried to imbue the qualities that these fierce women embody, into my own life and my practice. The tales of these female figures and their narratives have been passed down through oral tradition and are a symbolic part of Welsh heritage and by learning about them and extending my knowledge I feel like I have become part of another community and the wider witchcraft community. Witchcraft is becoming slowly more accepted in certain parts of society and what could be more living tradition than a lifestyle and practice that reaches back years and years and that also teaches you to reclaim your personal power. Witchcraft is teaching me to look within the depths of myself and teaching me to embrace the universe and its energy and to harness it for the good of myself and others.

I am hoping that I become part of that living tradition by passing it on to my children who can become the next tradition bearers but for now I am very much living!

IG: @thiswelshwitch

FB: This Welsh Witch


Referencing the Tradition by Alys West

When I read Nimue’s posts about Living Tradition and The Folk Process they resonated strongly with me. I write contemporary fantasy inspired by folklore. My first novel, Beltane is set in Glastonbury and I had a fabulous time weaving as much folklore as I could manage into the story.  I’m currently editing my third novel, Storm Witch, which is inspired by an Orcadian folk tale.  Folklore is the initial seed from which the books germinated. It’s woven into the setting of both novels but, once I started dealing with the nuts and bolts of constructing a novel, the pressures of structure, characters, pacing etc. took over.

Then, last year, I started working on a collection of short stories which are re-imaginings of folk songs and ballads. I wrote the first three stories as my dissertation for my MA in creative writing and suddenly I found myself dealing with the issues which Nimue talks about in her post on the Living Tradition.  It’s fair to say I did a lot of research. I read Francis J. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, I spent afternoons researching in the Vaughn William’s Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House and I got the university library to order me increasingly obscure academic texts on ballad and folk song theory.  And I started to feel I was doing something far more subversive than I’d anticipated in retelling the stories of these songs.

To use Nimue’s metaphor, these academic texts pinned folk song to a board but, in this case, in a library rather than a museum. I started to feel like I couldn’t change anything. Under the weight of all of this academic erudition, I was getting further and further away from my initial vision and my words started to dry up.  The dissertation had two elements, the larger element was creative content and there was a shorter critical element.  It got to the point that I couldn’t write anything creative. My words felt too flighty, too fragile for the pressure of all of this theory.  In the end, various friends gave me a fairly stern talking to and I found enough of a way back to get the dissertation finished but my confidence in myself as a writer had been severely shaken.

On finishing my MA in October, I was shattered and, after lying on the sofa reading trashy fiction for a few weeks, I put my song stories away to concentrate on other writing. I went back to going to gigs and listening to folk music and I tried really hard not to think deep thoughts and simply to enjoy them.  Then a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a folk musician which made me reconsider what I’m trying to achieve in re-imagining folk songs.

For me, folk is essentially about people. It’s about the people who sang the songs in the past and the people who sing them now.  It’s not an accident that the stories I’ve written are all about women.  As a writer, I want to hear the narratives which aren’t explicit in the song and too often it’s the woman’s perspective which isn’t told.  The original idea for writing these stories was sparked by wanting to know why the wife ran away with the gypsy in ‘The Gypsy Laddie’.  I’ve written a story about that now and it feels like I’ve found jigsaw pieces which have been missing since I first heard The Waterboys version of ‘The Raggle-taggle Gypsies’ in 1990.

I learned about the concept of traditional referentiality in my research which suggests that every performance of a traditional song resonates with all of the previous performances of that work.  I know this is true in the way I listen to folk music. When I hear a new interpretation of a song, I listen to it in tandem with all of the previous versions I’m aware of which means each folk song echoes with the interpretations which have gone before. For me, that’s part of folk’s magic.

I’ve realised I’m happy to refer to the tradition but I don’t want to be bound by it. The stories I’m writing need to reach forwards more than they reach back. Folk has to evolve and grow in order to stay relevant.  Anyone who is part of the living tradition is keeping folk alive in ways which are, I think, far more vital to its survival than anything you’ll find in a museum or a library.

 

Bio:

Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk.  Her novels BELTANE and THE DIRIGIBLE KING’S DAUGHTER are published by Fabrian Books.  She’s currently editing her third novel, STORM WITCH which will be published in autumn 2019.  Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University. She teaches creative writing for Converge, an education project for people with lived experience of mental health.

You can find out more about Alys West on:

Her website: www.alyswest.com

Amazon: Alys West

Twitter: @alyswestyork

Facebook: Alys West Writer

Instagram:  @alyswestwriter

 


Living Tradition

My parents met in the folk club my mother and grandmother were running. Folk music featured heavily in my childhood. I was terrified of mummers as a child. Not only did I get exposed to the more usual rounds of Greek mythology, Robin Hood and King Arthur, but also to other folklore of the British Isles. I grew up in a landscape rich with story. For me, folk is something you do, not something you pin to a board and leave, dead and dry to gather dust. I am deeply invested in the idea of living tradition.

The trouble with folklore is that there are some folklore academics, and people who wish to align with what they think academic approaches to folklore look like, who want to police it. They want dead things pinned to boards. They have rules about what folklore is, and it is all about what is in the past, and what has been widely accepted already. They actively exclude living tradition people from the folklore playground.

Not all folklore academics, mind you. I’ve had some brilliant conversations recently with people who see folk as a process not a product, and for whom the living tradition is just as important as the history. I’ve got books to hunt out and people to read and I’ll be back to talk about this excellent stuff more when I’ve had chance to dig in. Because for me, dialogue between folklorists and living tradition people is a good thing when that’s an open conversation and not one set of people trying to tell the other set what they are allowed to be, and do.

I take this all very personally. My land stories, my relationship with songs and places and tales, with mumming and history and the imagination are threads that run through my life. They are part of how I see myself and understand myself. I’m by no means alone in this. To tell a living tradition person that they are outside of folklore, that they don’t have any right to have what they contribute taken seriously, is, frankly, offensive. Folklore and tradition are living things, made by people, changed by people – the people at the cutting edge of it should not be excluded from it.

This is especially important for modern Pagans. So many people are working with old stories, personal gnosis and vision and the realities of our modern world to create a living tradition that is both rooted and relevant.

But, as folklore is a living thing, it has the means to wriggle out of the hands of gatekeepers and those who would kill it and pin it up for scrutiny. Folk traditions have always resisted authority – folk remains dirty, plural, messy, contradictory, full of re-invention and innovation, becoming whatever people need it to be at the time. Folklore, as one of my fellow comrades in living tradition points out, has a habit of biting on the arse anyone who thinks they can own it.