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Wooden shelves and counter filled with jars are lit by two oil lamps.

Isolation is a part of life in the Appalachian Mountains, and that can sometimes mean no access to electricity. This is a view of Nikki Chester’s apothecary when she was straining some oil but the power went out.

Photo by Nikki Chester

  • Appalachian Folk Magic: Generations of “Granny Witchcraft” and Spiritual Work

    In the Appalachian Mountains, stretching from West Virginia to Mississippi, folk magic goes by many names: root work, granny magic, kitchen witchery, Braucherei, witchcraft. No matter the name, it is the tradition of using native plants to heal and perform magic.

    The first people to combine Appalachian nature and spiritual ritual were the Cherokee and Choctaw. European settlers didn’t flood the early American colonies until the eighteenth century, carrying traditional folk healing practices with them from Western Europe. Their emigration was sparked by the spread of Protestantism across Europe and the persecution of those practicing outside the Church. Throughout the years of the Spanish Inquisition, religious institutions used the term “witch” to identify someone practicing healing and ritual outside the bounds of the Christian Church.

    When these Scottish, Irish, and English settlers arrived, they combined their traditional practices with Native American knowledge about flowers, berries, roots, and leaves native to Appalachia. Settlers from Germany and people of African descent also shared their wisdom about rituals and natural remedies. Out of this large melting pot was born a uniquely American faith tradition practiced mostly by familial matriarchs.

    “Granny magic” or “granny witchcraft” represents one flavor. Within this tradition, older women, called grannies, served as midwives, healers, and stewards of ancestral knowledge within their communities. These women knew the regenerative properties of certain native plants and provided medical care to those living in isolated areas, where residents were often distrustful of doctors. They concocted treatments for bladder and stomach problems, relief for burns and warts, and herbal methods for contraception and abortion. Catnip tea was commonly used to prevent hives, and sufferers placed sulfur in their shoes to ease flu. 

    Between 1860 and 1980, Appalachian women held and used knowledge about herbal and home remedies that could be used at a time when many local governments restricted medical treatment to doctors. It was their unpaid labor that kept communities alive.

    Nikki Chester counts these women as her ancestors.

    A woman smiles, holding up products in an outdoor market book. Her table displays include small glass containers and brown paper bags.
    Nikki Chester sells her herbal remedies as the business Nikki’s Nourished by Nature.
    Photo by John Sacco

    Chester was born and still lives in the heart of Appalachia, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in McDowell County, North Carolina. Her Scottish and Irish ancestors immigrated to North America in the 1800s and, upon facing an inhospitable winter, combined their folk traditions with knowledge of native plants held by her Native American ancestors, to survive. Her European ancestors settled in Tom’s Creek, seeking shelter in a cave during their first winter in North America.

    “My ancestors never left these hills, and their blood runs true in my veins,” she says.

    Every morning, Chester feeds her nine cats, then heads down to her apothecary. Her cat sanctuary is built into a hollow in her backyard, and the apothecary is set in a shed in her front yard. Late in the morning, she checks in with her children. While most afternoons are busy with household chores, once or twice a week she ventures into the forest. There, she forages for plants to make oils, medicines, and salves which she prepares and ships from the shed. She continues a long lineage of hereditary granny witches—although she isn’t yet ready to assume the title.

    She lovingly recalls her own granny witch, her great-grandmother Lennie Baucom Hudgins, who taught her and her cousins about gathering ginseng, sassafras, mountain mint, spicewood, and tea berry. Standing four and a half feet tall, her “Nanny” knew a remedy for every ailment. She dipped snuff for beestings and encouraged her great-grandchildren, including Chester, to join her on walks in the forest to collect supplies for her remedies.

    “I did not grow up directly under her skirts,” Chester acknowledges, but she spent lots of time in her care.

    Despite her upbringing, Chester did not begin exploring this ancestral knowledge until her mid-twenties. Nine years ago, she started making salves and tinctures for family and friends, and two years later opened her business—Nikki’s Nourished By Nature—because cat food had become too expensive. She started out in a camper on her family’s property, but as the number of herbs and spices in her rotation rapidly increased, she purchased a twelve-by-forty-foot tiny home to sit in her front yard. Her apothecary, as she affectionately calls it, is where she spends her days blending teas, drying herbs, and mixing salves to fill online orders and help the many people who come through her door.

    She admits that she always knew that she was different growing up, always making “healing potions” out of berries, leaves, flowers, and sticks, but her practice differs in one major way from that of her ancestors and relatives: she does not hold traditional Christian beliefs. As she describes fondly, the women in her family used the book of Psalms like a spell book, combined with an intimate knowledge of the land.

    A cabinet full of glass jars.
    A view inside Nikki Chester’s apothecary, showing her cabinets full of supplies for creating custom remedies.
    Photo by Nikki Chester

    Samara Duncan, from Tennessee, explained that families like Chester’s “had to exist in a deep Christian society and culture,” and as such, “they might’ve identified as Christians and looked at their ways and knowledge as a God-given gift or as being a vessel.”

    In fact, most people who practiced or presently practice folk magic do so within Christianity. Sara Amis, a practicing pagan and instructor at the University of Georgia, notes that among early Appalachian practitioners, “their approach to Christianity is very animist. To them, spirit is very present in the world—it’s present in the rock, so they go and pray to the rock, or they pray at the rock if someone is sick.” Psalms, Bible verses, and devotionals are part of many charms and spells, just like those used by Chester’s family.

    As Anthony Cavender notes in Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia,“talking the fire out of a burn” involves a charm invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. According to tradition, no fee would be charged for the service, nor was the burned person to say thank you, because it was believed to be “the work of the Lord.” The effectiveness of the treatment all depended on the strength of the burned person’s faith.

    For this reason, not all folk magic practitioners identify with the term “witch.” Rachel Samek, a folk magic practitioner who grew up in Pittsburgh before living in rural Freedom, Pennsylvania, explains that “witchcraft” has nothing to do with her tradition. She grew up in the Orthodox Church and attended Catholic school. Similarly, Mary, who runs a social media account sharing her local Appalachian traditions with the wider world (and who prefers not to use her last name), practices folk Catholicism, the fusion of cultural traditions, folk beliefs and rituals, and Catholicism in various communities. Her great-grandmother was a devout folk Catholic, but because Appalachian culture is largely non-Catholic, Mary grew up surrounded by people who believed her icons, statues, and rosaries were evil, not unlike the views that surround folk magic held by outside communities. For both women, the biblical Mary is a central figure to their practice, and both see folk Catholicism as an accessible pathway to connect with her.

    Some people, like the family of H. Byron Ballard, do identify with the term “witch” for spiritually and culturally important reasons. Ballard founded and serves as senior priestess at the Mother Grove Goddess Temple in Asheville, North Carolina, a space for people of all faith traditions to celebrate divine femininity and Mother Earth. For some, like Ballard, reclaiming “witch”—a term with a decidedly violent history surrounding the erasure of non-Christian beliefs—celebrates the survival of faith traditions that exist outside of or branching out from Christian Churches.

    On a kitchen counter, jars of pickles and other concoctions.
    The spoils of Virginia “kitchen witch” Debbie Morefield-Brown’s canning season, including chow chow, squash relish, pickled cabbages, and pickles.
    Photo by Debbie Morefield-Brown

    Along the same lines of terminology, not all granny witches are women. There are many men, two-spirit, and nonbinary individuals who practice Appalachian folk magic.

    Steven Parkes, who lives in Tobaccoville, North Carolina, also creates oils, tinctures, herbal teas, poultices, and salves using local flora and fauna. Parkes is also an animist who incorporates the Bible in various forms of magic and divination. Rob Cox, a practicing Eclectic Witch in Raleigh, North Carolina, is another example. He is another hereditary witch, or someone born into a family with an existing tradition of witchcraft. Along with his wife, Appalachian water witch Nina Cox, he hosts the Heretics Haberdashery pop-up shop on the weekends to educate people about Appalachian folk magic and break the stereotypes surrounding witches.

    While the term “witch” is often understood today as a female magical practitioner, the term has historically been used by all genders. As Samek indicated, the term was applied to anyone deviating outside of religious lines, and, more likely than not, this included individuals who did not conform to the strict gender and sexual norms of the day.

    Reclaiming these practices is not just about continuing family legacy but also about recognizing the labor of working-class and enslaved people—especially women—as spiritual workers and healers. While folk magic practitioners like Chester are eager to follow in their footsteps, the traditional knowledge of other families is often still held only by granny witches.

    As many members of social media groups on Facebook explain, granny witches are few and far between. Many have passed on, taking their ancestral knowledge with them. Social media allows for folk magic practitioners in separate states and time zones to connect and exchange ideas, returning to the religious borrowing at the root of the Appalachian tradition. Sharing a family’s knowledge on these platforms allows people to sustain the memories of those who have died. It enables and encourages them to continue the practice and creates a living archive of folk magic knowledge from which modern-day granny witches can pull. Documenting these traditions and sharing them with the world is about reclaiming and protecting the cultural heritage of Appalachia, of what it means to be Appalachian.

    “I am honored,” Chester says, “to be able to pass that knowledge down to my own family generations later.”

    Emma Cieslik is a museum professional in the Washington, D.C., area and a former curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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