I recently got an ask on tumblr about Southern Folk Magic. I haven’t been able to post here lately cause of the move and starting grad school, so I thought I’d share it here.
Can you talk a bit about Southern folk magic? What’s that like? How’d you learn it? What makes it distinctly Southern?
So, I’ll start with a little background on the term “Southern Folk Magic.” Obviously, hopefully anyway, the term is to denote regional variations of folk magic practiced in the US South. That said, I use it as an umbrella term for the practices that happen Down South because there are TONS. We tend to talk about the South as a whole, but what many folks from outside the region don’t seem to realize is just how much diversity there is down here. Like I mentioned here, there are tons of subregions in the South and just as our food, accents, and dialects are different, so can our magical practices be. My personal experiences have been in Memphis/Mississippi Delta/North Mississippi and Knoxville/East Tennessee/Southern Appalachia. I’ll be addin Atlanta and hopefully North Georgia to that list soon, but not quite yet.
For those not from the Delta region, Memphis is often jokingly referred to as “the capitol of Mississippi.” This is largely cultural and demographic and I’ve long said “Memphis will always be more Mississippi than it’s ever been Tennessee.” And the older I get, the more true that seems to be. According to the 2010 census, Mississippi has a 37% Black population. It has also seen the largest increase in people reporting to be of “mixed race.” Memphis has a 61% Black population, with many of these folks bein the direct descendants of freed slaves who moved out of the rural South and into a city. And in West Tennessee, which runs from the Western border of the state to the western bifurcation of the Tennessee river and represented by the far left star on our state flag, even small towns often have 30%+ Black populations whereas Knoxville, the largest city in East Tennessee, only has a 13% Black population. So the folk magic I grew up around in Memphis is largely influenced by Black folks whereas East Tennessee Appalachian folk magic is much more influenced by Cherokee and Scots-Irish practices.
So, when I moved to Knoxville for college, it was absolute culture shock. I wasn’t actively or knowingly practicing magic at that point, but the foundations had been laid. I got a blue doormat for the front door because that’s what you do. Now I realize this comes from a West African idea that harmful spirits can’t cross water and the blue doormat (or painting the underside of your porch roof) will hopefully confuse em. I’ve since learned this is common in Carolina Lowcountry from the Gullah-Geechee people, so I’m not sure the exact lineage of me learnin it, but it’s somethin I still do. Little things like this abound and I honestly only think about it when I find myself doin one of em.
Another tradition I grew up around is water-witchin water dowsing. The first time I heard the term as a kid, I was confused, but both of my grandparents on my daddy’s side could do it and it basically involves balancin a forked stick and when it drops, that’s where you dig your well. Other people use 2 sticks or metal rods and wait for em to cross. Either way, it seems to work.
I also wear a dime on a red string on my right ankle for good luck and to avert “the evil eye.” This is somethin a childhood friend’s grandmother made for me the first time sayin, “honey, you just need it.” And I think she was right. This is a practice that, from what I’ve read, also comes from African tradition, but specifically what or where has been all over West Africa. But the red string also carries over into Irish lore on good luck and as a Gaelic Polytheist, it makes a perfect blend of practices for me.
There’s also what I feel like is a broder American tradition that comes to us likely from the Irish of hangin a horseshoe above the door. Modern folklore says to hang it points up so that the “luck doesn’t run out,” but it also seems to do have to do with the idea that horseshoes are traditionally iron and the fae don’t like iron.
In East Tennessee, it’s not unheard of to see a tree with ribbons or scraps tied to it. The type of tree varies, but the idea is similar to Buddhist prayer flags (for a more recognized practice) and seems to come from the Gaels that settled in the area. But over heard people say it has Indigenous ties, too. How much of that is true and how much is “Cherokee Princess Syndrome” as I like to call it, I just don’t know. That’s one thing about bein down here; we’ve created a string cultural identity that, regardless of how it happened, mashed cultural practices together that there’s just no tellin where some of em exactly come from. And that’s honestly part of what makes it “Southern.” Our culture is an amalgamation of various African cultures, Irish and German immigrants, Acadians, French and Spanish historical colonization and influence, and countless indigenous cultures. If the stories of how that happened weren’t so absolutely mortifying, it could be beautiful, but we’ll always carry the wounds and scars of the past, imo.
As for how I learned, it’s been a wild ride. A lot of things I just learned culturally growin up. When you’re “born in the South, given to a town raised on hand to mouth,” a lot of things I’d now qualify as folk Magic are just a part of life. But as I’ve grown and begun intentionally practicing, I’ve read everything I can. Lots of times, this means pickin through charlatans and pseudo-intellectual horseshit. It means often bein VERY wary of other white folks claimin to know anything about anything. I’ve talked to older folks who practice and try to learn what they’re willin to teach. But it’s been a tough road. And that, along with other historical factors, are why I don’t use terms like hoodoo for my practice. I think hoodoo is a form of Southern Folk Magic, but it also has its own specific history and practices ties to the Christianization and slavery of African peoples. I’ve found a lot of similarities in my practices and Hoodoo™, but I also have a much more heavy and specific Irish influence because of bein a Gaelic Polytheist than a lot of other folks.
So, as with most topics, it’s incredibly nuanced and I’m sure I’ve left somethin out or even said somethin that wasn’t super clear, so if there are any questions, shoot! And if there are any other folks that practice Southern Folk Magic or Southern-influenced Magic, hit me up! I’d love to hear from y’all cause lord does it feel lonely sometimes. We can pm here, send me asks, hit me up on twitter, or shoot me an email at TheModernSouthernPolytheist@gmail.com.