Mountains in Ozark Folk Magic

14 min read


Foggy Ozark Mountain Scene

The landscape of the Ozark Mountains has been a vital force in forming regional traditions of folk magic and healing. This work already in progress, however, when hillfolk came to the Ozarks from another mountain home—Appalachia. To go even farther back, these mountain folk can trace their ancestry to highland areas of Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, and Scandinavia. As one of my favorite informants once told me, „Mountain people stick to their mountains.“ It's fascinating to see how cultures from a variety of mountainous areas around the world share in many of their folk traditions. It's almost as if the mountains themselves help to shape the culture of those living on their slopes. This is certainly the case of Ozark hillfolk and their Appalachian cousins. In the early days of settlement, the mountains represented abundance, prosperity, and the shear force of vitality that the natural world holds when it's still wild. Early hillfolk found the mountains to be a protector as well as a shield against the outside world. The mountains have always cradled its inhabitants, still to this day where stepping into the rural areas of the Ozarks often feels like stepping into a completely different world. For traditional healers, the mountains have been a spiritual source of power and inspiration for many of the verbal charms, prayers, and rituals utilized by specialist practitioners.

According to Ozark folklore, the mountains are home to otherworldly beings, namely land spirits, monsters, and the infamous Little People (Ozark fairies). The non-indigenous settlers to the region built their homesteads in the mountains themselves, offering families plentiful wild foods, game, and protection. Later, much wealthier midwestern farmers would settle the fertile valley areas. Since this time of second settlement there has been a cultural separation between the valley folk and the hillfolk or hillbillies. For those who lived in the valley towns, the mountains were a terrifying wilderness, and the people who were crazy enough to live there were often seen as being primitive, backwards folk who ought to be avoided (or exploited). Stories even spread about the magical powers possessed by the hillfolk—as they were closer to nature. This stereotype still exists in places around the Ozarks today. One older informant I met said that when she was a kid there was a „mountainy man“ nearby who couldn't speak English but who could talk to animals. City-folk commonly consulted mountain healers for all sorts of magical and medical needs—although few would ever admit to it in polite conversation.

In Ozark cosmology, the mountain (any mountain) is seen as a ladder from this world to the next. For some, that is the Christian vision of Heaven, or even the Garden of Eden. For others, heaven is elsewhere, and the mountain is actually an entryway into the otherworld of spirits and fairies. In some accounts, all these locations are combined together in a complicated mélange. Climbing the mountain is then symbolic of the journey from the material to the spiritual. For this reason, mountains are considered sacred spaces where the innate river of magic that flows through the universe pools. It's from these pools that we mere mortals can draw extra power for our work. That said, the mountain is simultaneously believed to be a living entity itself, with different mountains oftentimes considered to have distinct personalities from one another. The image that was given to me by a teacher of mine is of a tree, a living organism, upon which other living organisms live and thrive. When we look at a tree, we see a tree, but upon closer inspection, we see not only the tree but lichen and moss growing in the cracks of the bark, fungi popping out in clusters, ants building a next in tunnels cut into the trunk, etc. The mountain, as with all environments, is a living being in collective with other living beings—ourselves included.

Amongst the hillfolk themselves, and in particular amongst the healers and magical practitioners, the mountains were an endless source of terror and power. Healers in the Ozarks are commonly referred to as people who know things—setting them apart from ordinary people in the community. This knowledge, gift, power, however you want to call it, often came with a price. Firstly, the healer must sacrifice having a regular life for the work. And secondly, the healer must go to all the places that would normally scare the pants off anyone else. It's in these dark, mountainous regions where the healer can find places of power. Stories abound about healers who in full or in part received their gift from some otherworldly or divine source in the mountains. Often this illumination takes on Christian overtones, but for some, the source of this power comes from the spirits, namely the Little People.

Many Ozark verbal charms and rituals remember the connection to the mountains not only by using this environment as an auspicious power place but also through the use of symbolic language that invokes the mountain's magic remotely. Below is a small example of such rituals. All of these were passed to me by my own teachers and now I am passing them to you.

Petitioning the Mountain Spirits for Protection
The spirits who inhabit the magical mountain spaces have personalities that reflect the neutral power of nature itself. In general, a good rule could be that whatever you give to the mountain, the mountain will give back. Treat the mountain with kindness, and you will be blessed and protected. Harm or destroy the mountain, and you will receive the same in return. This simple ritual is used whenever you are seeking protection from a mountain or any of its inhabitants.

Ingredients:

  • Food and drink offerings: whole dried oats, whole dried barley, and cornmeal (equal parts); milk, water, fruit juice, or black tea
  • Red ribbon, two feet long

Begin by gathering your food and drink items. I recommend putting both in separate canning jars or containers with lids. This way, you can throw them in a backpack for the hike. Next, go out to a mountain, any time of the day. This can be a specific mountain you know and love, or any mountain you'd like to petition for this work. I usually like developing a relationship with a mountain and its inhabitants before petitioning, but I've also found mountains will naturally return kind intentions with kindness.

When you're out on the mountain, use your to find the most auspicious place for the offerings. This might be a cave, old tree, waterfall, etc. Feel the pull to this spot in your body—trust yourself and trust the mountain. Once you find the power place, pour the food offerings on the ground, trunk of a tree, boulder, etc. Pour the drink offering over the food offerings. Repeat the verbal charm below while holding the red ribbon:

Mountain, I call you!
Mountain, friend, I call you!
Mountain, friend, for protection, I call you!
Mountain, friend, for protection, I'll give you a pretty ribbon for your hair!
Mountain, friend, for protection, I'll give you food for your hungry stomach!
Mountain, friend, for protection, I'll give you a drink for your thirsty mouth!
Mountain, friend, for protection, I call you!
Mountain, friend, I call you!
Mountain, I call you!

Finish by tying the ribbon in a tree near to the offerings, or if your power place is a tree, you can tie it in its branches. If you feel pulled to a specific object in the power place—such as a rock, branch, plant, bone, feather, etc.—take it with you as the mountain will often give gifts in exchange for gifts.

To Remove Your Enemy's Power
The most auspicious power place for this work is a lightning-stuck tree near the highest point of the mountain. If you can't find this specific location, any other power place that you're drawn to will work as well. This is a retribution ritual that aims at lessening the power of an enemy (or enemies) as a form of protection. Retribution rituals like this are also commonly used by healers to prevent any harm coming to their patients during the healing process, especially from entities that prey on the sick in their weakened state.

Ingredients:

  • Food and drink offerings: whole dried oats, whole dried barley, and cornmeal (equal parts); milk, water, fruit juice, or black tea
  • Hammer
  • Nail (large), railroad spike, or stake made from red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) or any other evergreen tree
  • Optional: photo of target

Begin by finding your power place at a lightning-struck tree on the mountain (or another power place on the mountain of your choosing). Recite the verbal charm below. Hammer the nail/spike/stake into the ground at the base of the tree (and through the photo if you have one) three times where indicated with an X in the charm.

Lightning strikes quick,
But I strike quicker!
To cut off your head, X
To cut off your heart, X
To cut off your stomach, X
And leave it all here,
For the lightning to eat.
Lightning strikes—Pop, pop, pop!
And all your power is gone, gone, gone.

It's customary to leave behind food and drink offerings at the end of this work. Once left, with a sincere intention, return home and leave behind the nail/spike/stake in the ground. Until it is removed, your enemy won't be able to work against you or the target of this ritual.

Giving the Sick to the Mountain
For cases of serious and life-threatening illness or curses, it's common for Ozark healers to petition aid from higher powers. This usually takes the form of ritual work with angels but can also include a powerful land spirit—namely a mountain. This is a ritual you can perform for yourself or another.

Ingredients:

  • Canning jar, container with lid, bottle, or bag that can be sealed
  • Food and drink offerings: whole dried oats, whole dried barley, and cornmeal (equal parts); milk, water, fruit juice, or black tea

Begin by finding your power place on the mountain. If you're working for someone, you will need to take them with you. Once there, repeat the verbal charm below. If you're working with another person, you can place your hands on the top of their head or on their shoulders during the recitation. If not, place your own hands on the top of your head, or one hand on each shoulder, or with both arms crossed across your chest.

What I touch, I give to the mountain. (Touch the head or shoulders)
What I see, shall be healed. (Look at the target of the work, or your own body)
What I hear, shall work for this healing. (Listen to the sounds of the mountain)
What I smell, shall be sweet incense. (Breathe deeply and slowly three times)
What I taste, shall be the taste of freedom, (Breathe through your mouth and taste the air)
From all sickness,
From all harm,
From all dreaded curses,
From…(insert specific ailments or things to be healed)
For…(myself, or full name of patient)
Mountain, you're my friend,
And friend to all who are good.
Take this petition,
Make us whole again!

End the ritual by gathering some soil from around the power place into your jar using your hands. This can also include any plants, rocks, etc. you might also grab up. If you're an herbalist, you can now gather any medicinal plants from around the power place as well. These will be extra auspicious because of the ritual. Feel free to stay here in meditation and prayer for as long as you like. You can also perform additional healing rituals here before leaving. When home, you will place the jar of dirt near the head of your bed until you are well again. Or, give it to the person you're working with to take home and do the same.

You will repeat the verbal charm every day, before dawn, at noon, and after sunset for as long as the illness persists. If you're working for another person, you can use a photo of them if it's not possible to be physically present with them for the duration of the healing process. When there are clear signs of health returning or that the curse has been removed, return the dirt back to the power place on the mountain along with additional food and drink offerings.

Laying an Angry Ghost to Rest on the Mountain
Because mountains are seen as an entryway into the otherworld, they are a perfect location for traditional Ozark exorcisms. It's believed that by sending or laying a vengeful ghost (often called a haint) near the top of a mountain, their guardian angel and familial guides will be able to carry them into the afterlife. It's almost like entrusting the spirit into the care of loving professionals. This form of laying is common amongst Ozark exorcists, many of whom believe in the rehabilitation and healing of angry and temperamental spirits rather than just kicking them to the curb as with many exorcism rites. It should be noted that this ritual in particular applies only to spirits of the dead and does not include land spirits, fairies, etc. for whom there are many other specific exorcisms.

Ingredients:

  • Canning jar, glass, pint or quart, with lid
  • Flashlight
  • Food and drink offerings: whole dried oats, whole dried barley, and cornmeal (equal parts); milk, water, fruit juice, or black tea
  • Graveyard dirt
  • Photo of the departed spirit (if available)

Begin by gathering your graveyard dirt. This should be dirt (doesn't have to be a lot) taken from within the boundary of a graveyard or cemetery where there are human bodies present. I recommend using neutral dirt, which is taken from inside the graveyard but not from off a grave. According to Ozark belief, the spirits of the dead can influence the dirt on top of their grave, which might introduce unwanted energies to your work. Neutral dirt is taken from open areas, from around trees, or from piles of extra dirt that are sometimes found in graveyards. Put this dirt in your glass canning jar and close the lid.

Begin this ritual three days before the new moon. Spirits are believed to be at their weakest on the new moon, so this is really to make your job easier. Take your jar of dirt and the photo of the deceased individual (if you have one), to the place of the haunting. The identity of the haint isn't needed for this ritual, but can help in the trapping and laying process. You can also use a square piece of white paper with the full name (first, middle, last) of the individual written on one side.

Place the jar of graveyard dirt on the ground in the spot where the most haunted activity occurs. Open the lid. Be mindful of anything that might disrupt the jar, like pets. If you can't safely place the jar on the ground, you can use a shelf, chair, etc. Place the photograph or name paper in front of the jar. Recite the verbal charm below:

Lonely one, sad and crying,
Come find a home, a home for you,
A home up the mountain,
Where there are plates of food
And endless cups of drink.
A home up the mountain,
Where there are fluffy beds
And blankets to keep you warm.
I'll carry you on my back,
So you don't have to walk.
I'll carry you up the mountain,
I'll carry you back home.
Your time here is over,
The sun has set and morning is far off.
To bed, to bed, come, I'll carry you,
I'll carry you up the mountain.

Leave the open jar in this room for three days and nights. On the third night, which should be the new moon, at sunset, seal the jar. Go up the mountain to your power place (or find one). Place the photo or name paper on the ground (you can even dig a little grave) then pour the dirt on top of it. Repeat the verbal charm again then pour your food and drink offerings over the dirt.

Repeat as needed (always on the new moon) as long as the haunting continues. Use fresh graveyard dirt each time.

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