Residents of the Appalachian Mountains have a number of unique struggles and adversities not found elsewhere, as it has always been. The prevalence of the stereotype is a major adversary. More stereotypes exist surrounding these mountain ranges than any other region of the United States. A new label seems to be making its rounds online, that of the “Granny witch.” What is a Granny witch? Apparently, that’s a good question. It isn’t really known.
Our foremothers were forces to be reckoned with. They lived by their own codes of honor and respect. They were independent, and no amount of struggle broke their spirit. The worst loss possible was not of any monetary asset, but that of reputation and hope. They were hearty, resourceful, and ingenious individuals who made a full life with very little. Most were devoutly religious, as evidenced by the countless number of churches that littered the areas where they lived.
Current residents of the Appalachian mountains are bracing for yet another dubious stereotype. Had we the audacity to call, or imply, that our grannies, nanas, or mamows, were “witches,” many of us would still be feeling the consequences decades later. As a point of reference, these are the definitions of the word “witch,” that our ancestors would have known.
“A woman who is given to unlawful arts.” —A Dictionary of the English Language. Samuel Johnson. A. Millar, 1766.
“A woman who is given to unlawful arts.” —A Dictionary of the English Language. Samuel Johnson, 1792.
“1. A woman who by compact with the devil, practices sorcery or enchantment. 2. A woman who is given to unlawful arts.” —Webster’s Dictionary, 1828.
“A woman who practices sorcery.”—A Dictionary of the English Language. Noah Webster. White, Gallaher, & White, 1831.
“A person supposed to have formed a compact with evil spirits, and by their means to operate supernaturally;—formerly applied to persons of either sex, but now only to women.” —A Dictionary of the English Language. Joseph Emerson Worcester. Hickling, Swan and Brewer, 1860.
“A woman supposed to have formed a compact with evil spirits, by whose means she possessed supernatural powers.” —A Universal Critical and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language. H.G. Bohn, 1863.
“A woman supposed to have formed a compact with evil spirits, by whose means she possessed supernatural powers.” —New Websterian 1912 Dictionary. Noah Webster, Harry Thurston Peck. Syndicate Publishing Company, 1912.
“A woman supposed to have formed a compact with the devil, who practices sorcery or enchantment.” —Nuttall’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language. P. Austin Nuttall. F. Warne, 1914.
Even in texts that explore such realms, the title is not an admirable one:
“A person who, by means of satanic assistance or the aid of evil spirits or familiars, are enabled to practice minor black magic. But the difference between the sorcerer and the witch is that the former has sold his soul to Satan for complete dominion over him for a stated period, whereas the witch usually appears as the devoted and often badly treated servant of the diabolic power.” —An Encyclopedia of Occultism. Lewis Spence. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1920.
There is no point in history where the term “witch,” would’ve been flattering.
There are many examples of the word “witch,” in Appalachian history. Most are the opposite of what is used today.
Most commonly, a witch was not even human. The Bell Witch, the Sybert Witch, Aunt Tabby’s Witch, Bill Beaver and Old Nance, the Roan Mountain witch, the Clip Wizard (or Witch), all were often declared to be either demonic forces, spirits, or poltergeists.
The rare formal mentions of “witches” were always against men. Both the Fentress County (Tennessee) witch, as well as the Abingdon (Virginia) witch, were men.
If witches existed in folklore, they were often more akin to fairies or changelings. If you went to them for help in any matter, no matter how innocent or benign, the consequences were disastrous.
It is true that most Appalachian ancestors were Scots-Irish. It is also true that Scotland converted to Christianity in the 5th Century, and Ireland long before that. The “ancient ways” brought to America were common customs and superstitions. Non-Appalachian residents experienced the same phenomena, only they’re called “Old Wives’ Tales.” There are no magical Appalachian “spells,” “enchantments,” “potions,” “poultices,” or “powders.”
The closest to any “magical” practices in Appalachian areas was “hoodoo,” and that varied from household-to-household, and region-to-region. This was not a common or frequent practice. It was in no way organized or coherent. For example, a hoodoo good luck charm in North Carolina, would be considered a cursed item in Tennessee. Hoodoo, however, was not observed by the prudent Victorian-minded Appalachian populations who wished to be “respectable.”
The practices our foremothers observed more accurately termed “herb doctoring,” “natural healing,” or “midwifery.” As with most legends, however, there may be a grain of truth to this. Occasionally, our forefathers practiced something called “charm doctoring,” which might have brought about some confusion.
Charm doctors were frontier doctors during the time of the Appalachian settlers. They utilized whatever they had, herbs, berries, roots, or even bones and rocks, in attempts to cure various ailments. Many prayed over the potential cure, and from that point on, it was regarded as “charmed.” Today we would call them “blessed” or “sanctified.” This was done by such individuals as Elder Peter Adkins or “Old Preacher” Billy Robinette.
There were even a few “warlocks.” These patriarchs were consulted if anyone thought they were suffering from ailments brought on by a witch. The “witches” who brought about the disaster or tragedy were never named or known.
Our history is rich and colorful enough outside of fictitious recollection. It is no secret that most of our history is revised daily, but this particular topic begs the question of intent. If we must manipulate, exaggerate, or outright fabricate the history of our elder ladies, just to make them interesting or relevant, what does that make us? How far does it go before we cease to be historic writers, and become fiction writers? What respect do we show our matriarchs by labeling them with terms they would’ve considered heinously disrespectful and insulting?