Granny Witches

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Eleanor Rose

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So when exactly did witches get such a bad reputation? In the mid-19th century, nearly every mountain top and “holler” in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina had their local witch. Known as the “Granny Witch,” she was an honored person, revered as a magical healer. They were considered a rare gem who had brought their craft from Europe to the New World. These states are filled with folklore about their “Granny Witches.”

In the days of old, “Granny Witches” were sought out for all kinds of ailments and for solutions to other kinds of problems as well. Some who were also known as "Water Witches" were consulted when someone in the community needed to add a well to their property. With the use of special divining rods, “Granny Witches” would pinpoint water on the spot. They were also called upon when someone was planting a new garden or burying a loved one. “Granny Witches” typically used a long straight rod, rather than the ‘forked stick’ type. It was made of wood from a flowering tree such as dogwood, apple or peach.

Granny witchcraft has its roots in ancient Scots-Irish traditions that were brought over to Appalachia as early as the 16th century. As these immigrants built their new lives, these old ways quickly developed into something uniquely Appalachian. Over time Native American traditions were blended with the old-world beliefs to create a concoction of spiritual and medicinal cures. These were quite popular in the mid-19th century.

Hospitals were often too far away and a little suspicious to mountain folks. When accidents and illnesses happened, the locals relied on “Granny Witches.” These traditional folk healers were aptly skilled in herbalism, home remedies, spells and energy work. Granny magic healed sickness, birthed babies, removed curses and predicted the weather. In the far reaches of Appalachia, “Granny Witches” were often the only source of medical care. Their practices were simple, inventive and always grounded in the natural world.

Divination was popular among Appalachian “Granny Witches.” Many read cards, tea leaves and clouds. Scrying in bowls of water, dirt, or sand was also common. Spider webs were also scrutinized for messages from the Cherokee Spider Grandmother Goddess, a Goddess of fate, magic, weaving, art and storytelling. She was said to weave magical messages into her webs.

Much of the power and influence that these grannies wielded drew their strength from the unwavering beliefs of those under her “spell.” Although folk healers have mostly disappeared from the hills of Appalachia, their focus on pragmatism, ingenuity and self-reliance continues to have significant appeal. Modern herbalism, midwifery, foraging, and homesteading carry on the spirit of the Appalachian “Granny Witches” today.

Sarah-Wilson-Bull-Gap-Tenn..jpg

Sarah Wilson, of Bull Gap, TN. (Public Domain)

Have you, or someone you know, had an experience with a Granny Witch? If so, please share. I well remember my grandparents calling upon a local woman to use her divining rod to help them locate where they should dig their well. Sadly, the well performed very poorly, but she did use the ‘forked stick’ type. :smile:
 
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luinrina

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the well performed very poorly, but she did use the ‘forked stick’ type.
Surely, that forked stick was the cause. Had she used a long straight rod, the well would have done splendidly. :wink:

Joking aside, interesting post! Usually, when I hear about witchcraft, I generally first think about how many people were afraid of it - especially in the Dark Ages and the infamous witch hunts. It's refreshing to see that the "magic" of the granny witches is considered positive and that people freely sought them out.

I also find it intriguing how the old world believes over time blended with the Native American traditions.

Thanks for sharing, Ellie! :thumbsup:
 

NH Civil War Gal

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My father could do dowsing and taught me but he used witch hazel. Here's a link to a Vermont site where the official dowsing association got started in 1961.

Vermont Dowsers

https://vermonter.com › vermont-dowsers-water-witches

Vermont Dowsers or “Water Witches”. Dowsing, also known as “water witching”, has taken place in Vermont since the 1700s. ... Influenced by Winchell, Wood soon incorporated the dowser’s “divining rod” into his home-grown religious activities.

I remember it being called "water witching" too. Though it has branched out into lots of other things, my father never, ever used it for anything other than finding water. He taught me and I've used it to find filled in wells on the property but I haven't used it in decades. Let's call @diane and see if she is familiar with anything similar in her family.

My father's mother was a 7th daughter of a 7th daughter and could heal or so "they" say! He firmly believed it. She would lay her hands on you and help with healing of arthritis and such. But it couldn't have been perfect because they lost a child to meningitis. Yet, my father could remember well that people called on her to come lay hands on them to help heal them. But oddly she never believed in ghosts. She once sat in a haunted house all night and discovered the ghostly tapping was a rat with a corn cob!
 
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diane

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This is interesting! I've wondered too how European and Indian mixed together. Today we have a lot of blended Christian/Native practitioners. None of them can do what the old timers could!

We don't have the equivalent of a dowser - the mountains are so full of water! We're river people. Healing was more what people did and some of them had very elaborate methods, some took days or weeks and some just did it. My great-aunt was a sucking doctor. If you were sick she literally sucked it out and threw it away - it appeared in her hands as a black or grey thing. The patient would generally be well within hours or the next day. She and my mother also used lots and lots of herbs and remedies like that for cuts, bruises, things like that - and also if someone got colds, fevers. Once I spilled boiling water on my foot (we had to carry it from the wood stove) and had a third degree burn over the whole foot. They got together and used compresses and poultices - but I don't know now what it was they used - and I got over it very quickly, didn't even have a scar. If you cook your foot, you might retain a scar! Every time we came down with something there was a tea for it, or a poultice. The Indian word for 'doctor' doesn't have an English counterpart in any of the river languages, but they aren't doctors in the medical sense. I've tried on a few English words for the real meaning and it's elusive. I suppose the least incorrect would be wizard.

But it was hazardous to be a doctor. People were very happy to see you come because they knew the sick person would be better. You didn't go if you didn't think you could help. If the patient died, the family might see it as your medicine was bad...and kill you!
 
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lelliott19

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to use her divining rod
My great "Uncle Dee" (his name was DeRoy but we all called him Uncle Dee) taught me to "water witch" when I was 10 years old. We used two pieces of wire clothes hanger bent into a long L. You held the short end of the L's loosely - one in each hand and walked slowly over the ground. When the two rods crossed, you were onto something. Ive done it since and even taught a few other people with success.

Uncle Dee could also "heal" certain problems. One time, I had a wart come up on my finger. He rubbed a penny on it - just a regular copper penny coin from his pocket change. After he rubbed over the wart with the penny (not hard or anything just light pressure) then he gave me the penny and told me to keep it. If I lost the penny of spent it, he said the wart would come back. About 2 or three days later the wart was gone. It didnt fall off; it just disappeared. I kept the penny safely tucked away in a jewelry box for years - never spent it but eventually, it was lost. The wart never came back and I never tried it on anyone else, but feel like I could do it should the need ever arise.

I do not know where Uncle Dee learned his "magic" - he never said exactly but I suspect he learned it from Native traditions. Ill never forget that day! I dont know why he decided to teach me and not my sister or other cousins? Anyway, it is absolutely the best memory I have of him.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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Cool stuff, all of it. Thanks for posting! IMO it can't be an accident we've gotten so far away from natural healing to the point where those who practice as the Granny witches did are considered kooky. Tell you what- son's TBI resulted in these crazy handfuls of pills/chemicals. It was insane. Poor kid gained a gazillion pounds, was zoned out and had no energy whatsoever. He began researching. I'm not ( not ) saying ' don't listen to your doc ' but I will say he ended up pitching most of the pills in favor of the herbals. He's a vegan, lost the nearly 50 pounds all those pills helped pack on, does a ton of physical work. I'm sure a little sold on naturals.

Amazing how many of us are familiar with dowsing. Dad did it- Appalachian grandmother taught him. He found water for people, I think the rods were copper? Anyone remember having a shot at it? It's so odd. Those poles really do move, cross and re-cross as you walk.

Funniest part was he was a Lutheran minister. No one seemed to feel it was weird to come get the minister to find where to dig a well.
 

diane

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Doc Blackmun was the dowser in town here - old timey chiropractor, one of the first to get it made legal. There was an element to that style of chiropractor that's missing in a lot of younger ones. I suppose it's faith. Doc's generation was the one that came like the Baby Boomers - just at the end of the CW. I believe he said he was from either Missouri or Arkansas and learned dowsing from his father, who was also one. Seems to be inherited! He just picked up any forked stick and used it - always could find water. It's funny how every community, no matter how blessed with water, no matter where in the country, seems to have a dowser!
 
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Thanks for posting that!

I own a copy of "The Day Must Dawn" by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. This historical fiction novel is about a family of Presbyterians of Scottish descent who lived on the frontier in Western Pennsylvania during the American Revolution. The family is fictional, but the novel is based loosely on actual historical events. The author was herself a Presbyterian of Scottish descent.

Partway through the story, a rattlesnake bit Viola, the teenage daughter. Viola’s mother treated the wound with contemporary medicine. (Chestnut bark poultice. Boiled chestnut leaves. Nanny tea – tea made with dried sheep dung.) Meanwhile, Viola’s father and and brother dissected the offending snake. They roasted the snake over a fire. They said “words of the dark charm” over the cooking snake. Then, they applied the snake meat to Viola’s wound. Viola’s mother turned away, ashamed that her husband and son used “witchcraft” (her words) to treat the snakebite.

I initially thought that this was a Pennsylvania Dutch treatment. However, in your reading, have you ever come across this as a "treatment" that a granny witch would have used?


In Pennsylvania, large number of German immigrants settled in the 1600's and 1700's. (They were called the Pennsylvania Dutch.) They brought with them traditions that resulted in the practice of "pow-wow medicine." This was practiced up until the 20th century. In 1928, a "river witch" in Central Pennsylvania managed to convince one pow-wow practitioner that a rival pow-wow practitioner had hexed him. This resulted in a murder.
 

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Nathanb1

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Thanks for posting that!

I own a copy of "The Day Must Dawn" by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. This historical fiction novel is about a family of Presbyterians of Scottish descent who lived on the frontier in Western Pennsylvania during the American Revolution. The family is fictional, but the novel is based loosely on actual historical events. The author was herself a Presbyterian of Scottish descent.

Partway through the story, a rattlesnake bit Viola, the teenage daughter. Viola’s mother treated the wound with contemporary medicine. (Chestnut bark poultice. Boiled chestnut leaves. Nanny tea – tea made with dried sheep dung.) Meanwhile, Viola’s father and and brother dissected the offending snake. They roasted the snake over a fire. They said “words of the dark charm” over the cooking snake. Then, they applied the snake meat to Viola’s wound. Viola’s mother turned away, ashamed that her husband and son used “witchcraft” (her words) to treat the snakebite.

I initially thought that this was a Pennsylvania Dutch treatment. However, in your reading, have you ever come across this as a "treatment" that a granny witch would have used?


In Pennsylvania, large number of German immigrants settled in the 1600's and 1700's. (They were called the Pennsylvania Dutch.) They brought with them traditions that resulted in the practice of "pow-wow medicine." This was practiced up until the 20th century. In 1928, a "river witch" in Central Pennsylvania managed to convince one pow-wow practitioner that a rival pow-wow practitioner had hexed him. This resulted in a murder.
Sharyn McCrumb's terrific novels set in Appalachia feature Nora Bonesteel, a woman with second sight.
 

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I'm pretty sure we have one in my area somewhere... lol

I like using herbs and natural remedies for certain things, that list keeps expanding slowly. I have a nice herbal tea blend that helps with nausea. Ginger, peppermint, and peach blend(it's from Bigelow Tea). Works almost every time.
 

Eleanor Rose

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However, in your reading, have you ever come across this as a "treatment" that a granny witch would have used?
Not exactly, but I have read rattlesnake bites were treated by killing a chicken and wrapping the warm body around the bite to draw the poison out. I'm not sure how well that worked. :frown: And I agree with @Nathanb1, Sharyn McCrumb's novels are terrific!

@risha , I'm not sure I welcomed you aboard when you joined. I'm so glad you found the Mid-19th Century forum! :smile:
 
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Waterloo50

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I’ve never heard of Granny Witches before, in Britain we just had plain old witches. Our witches could be any age, for the most part they were just ordinary women who understood how to use herbal remedies and they were experienced in helping with childbirth, I guess they were an early form of midwife and they were definitely the people to see if you had a medical complaint. Today we have witches and here’s a brief description of the differences between Wicca and pagan...

So, in a nutshell, here's what's going on. All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccans. All Wiccans are Pagans, but not all Pagans are Wiccans. Finally, some witches are Pagans, but some are not - and some Pagans practice witchcraft, while others choose not to. :O o:
 
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My great-aunt was a sucking doctor. If you were sick she literally sucked it out and threw it away - it appeared in her hands as a black or grey thing.
@diane, I so love when you tell these things!! I will never forget when you told how one of your relatives was called to a haunted house where the baby was troubled and he talked to the spirit of a deceased mother who had lost her child and wanted to snatch that child that lived there now. He convinced her to let go because she was causing the same grief she suffered from and indeed the spirit vanished and the baby was saved. It's good to know that there are more things around us than we can explain with all our modern, technical methods!

I have a nice herbal tea blend that helps with nausea. Ginger, peppermint, and peach blend(it's from Bigelow Tea). Works almost every time.
I can recommend a herbal tea made from aniseed, fennel and caraway seed - you even get that one in hospitals here, it helps against stomach ache and all kinds of problems with digestion. And it tastes really good!

And I agree with @Nathanb1, Sharyn McCrumb's novels are terrific!
Thank you, @Nathanb1 and @Eleanor Rose , I will watch out for these novels!

Here, in the village next to ours lived an old man (so rather a "Grampa wizard") and he healed a friend from his warts by "bespeaking" them and my neighbour from her very painful heel spur. I guess, probably it's one's own body that does the healing, but it sometimes needs an impulse. The mind is very powerful and I think it is not so much witchcraft, but charisma that provides the impulse for healing. In that respect, I think in "normal" medecine, it might sometimes be more the doctor you trust than the actual pill that makes you feel better. Or in other cases it is rather the confidence that the pill will do you good, than the actual chemicals it contains. for example, when I take my triptane agains migraines, it starts to work after 10 minutes, which is actually plainly impossible. But I take that nasal shot and 10 minutes later the nausea vanishes and I start to feel better although the headaches persists a little while longer. But even though the pain is still intense, I know it will go away now soon and that alone makes me feel better.

Fascinating topic, Ellie, thanks for having brought it up!
 
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