There are a variety of magical traditions, such as Hoodoo, Appalachian Folk Magic and Pennsylvania Dutch Hexcraft that are uniquely American. These beliefs and practices evolved in particular areas of the country when people of various ethnic backgrounds shared their folklore and magical traditions.
Traditional practitioners of these magical systems get fewer and fewer with each generation. Most mainstream people want no part of what they view as superstitious beliefs from another time— beliefs that, in their opinion, are as obsolete as horse-drawn plows and rotary dial telephones. Others feel the need to be more orthodox in their Christianity and avoid magic for that reason.
When a contemporary person DOES want more magic in their lives, they tend to walk away from Christianity altogether and therefore have no interest in the American systems of folk magic which incorporate the Christian pantheon and utilize the Bible and Christian religious symbols in the work.
I never gave any of this much thought until I became interested in not only honoring my ancestors and praying for their continued spiritual progress, but to do so in a way that showed respect for their beliefs and traditions. Ancestors on my mother’s side were working class Irish Catholics as far back as I can trace. My efforts to honor them made me aware of just how quickly culture, be it Irish Catholic or otherwise, can disappear into a world of cell phones, Mc Mansions and conspicuous consumption.
My grandmother’s Catholicism had a focus which was praying for the dead. She constantly prayed the rosary for deceased relatives and friends, but also for complete strangers. She did this as if it was her job, but she enjoyed it and it occupied a lot of her time.
When I was young, I left Catholicism to explore Wicca, Paganism and other paths. At that time, I fell in love with the idea of distant, Irish ancestors who lived close to nature and practiced forms of magic and medicine that were “untainted” by Christianity. I suppose that, at the time, these faceless, fantasy ancestors seemed more interesting than the immigrant factory workers whose photographs adorned the walls of my Nana’s simple home.
Here we are, forty years later, and it’s only been the last ten years or so that I am able to acknowledge and feel remorse for how I disrespected those ancestors who, generationally, are closer to me. I particularly feel bad about not seeing the beauty and selflessness of my grandmother’s practices.
When visiting the graves of her relatives to offer prayers and flowers, she would often walk up to a random grave, generally with a very old headstone, and offer prayers and flowers for that spirit. She used to say that someone who has been dead a long time likely has no one alive who feels connected enough to pray for them, so they appreciate the gesture.
Grandma believed that her practices and devotions earned her many “friends in heaven” with whom she had reciprocal relationships. She believed the spirits of the dead whom she had prayed for would intercede on her behalf during times of trouble. This is not to say that she gave only in hopes of receiving something in return. She was not like that. But she believed in the power of partnerships and reciprocal relationships at a time when most people didn’t articulate concepts like that.
When I decided to honor her by adopting her spiritual practices I realized that I could not remember how to pray the rosary or perform a Novena. I have friends who identify as Catholics and former Catholics but none of them could help me either. They had either forgotten these practices or were raised by secular Catholics and never taught these things.
It took some doing to find someone who’d accept my pantheistic tendencies and be willing to help me relearn Catholic devotional practices. It was then that I realized how different contemporary Catholic culture is from the community that I grew up in.
I’m not even 60-years old yet and already one is hard-pressed to find someone of Catholic origins who appreciates the spiritual and devotional traditions of their grandparents, who avails themselves of the beauty and efficacy of those traditions and who intends to pass these practices down to their own grandchildren.
I hope that five hundred years from now people won’t be writing books and articles about a once-upon-a-time-America, when Catholic grannies prayed for the dead and practiced Catholic folk magic, and where southern Protestants passed their Hoodoo traditions on to the next generation.
So much spiritual history and magical traditions have already been lost over the centuries. It saddens me to think that folk magic beliefs that are unique to our country or to our particular ancestors may also be lost.
That is why over the Easter weekend, I took my 9-year old granddaughter to visit the graves of my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. While we were there, we randomly visited some very old graves, where we offered prayers and flowers, and I taught my granddaughter how to make friends in heaven.