It’s that time of year again, when the air chills, the sun sets early, and things go bump in the night. It’s also the time that we get bombarded with images of wrinkly crones and black cats.
I love anything to do with cats, though it’s the former that bears deeper discussion. Between its rich Native American heritage, its role in slave trade as one of the original thirteen colonies, and the diverse cultures of people who settled here, I’ve always been fascinated with North Carolina’s curious history in witchcraft.
Most tarheels don’t even think of our state as having a historical connection to witchcraft. According to Tom Peete Cross, who wrote Witchcraft in North Carolina, in 1919, “Witchcraft is as old as history itself,”  a statement as true in our state as anywhere.
A famous passage that describes our state’s early attitudes toward witches is found in John Lawson’s History of Carolina, which was first printed in 1709. Lawson makes harsh commentary regarding Native American beliefs around “Hobgoblins and Bugbears,” as well about the female influences of childhood from midwives, nannies, and servants. He contends that they fill children with “foolery, who by their idle Tales of Fairies and Witches, make impressions on our tender Years.”
Clearly, we’re not without racial and gender bias in the formation of our views on native spiritual traditions, women, or magick as they pertain particularly to the American observation of Halloween. Halloween is based largely on pagan European holy days that had a sacred meaning and purpose, and occurred in late autumn. These holy days include the Irish Samhain, Czech Dziady, and Nordic Alfablot, and Vetrnætr. These holy days are usually referenced as the Christian holiday of All Hallow’s Eve, 31 October, though in reality they fall specifically at the midpoint of Scorpio between the Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice (cross-quarter at 15 degrees of Scorpio).
Despite that conscripted overlap in observation, similarities with the European-influenced holy days in North Carolina stop there. These holy days typicallu spanned between the end of October and the end of the first week of November, though Northern European cultures celebrated Alfablot and Vetrnætr over a period of time, usually beginning over the cross-quarter full moon, after the new moon, and after the fall equinox. These holy days are still observed in North Carolina as seasonal honoring of the Ancestors, releasing the unquiet dead, closing harvest celebrations and welcoming Winter, and warding off the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual hardhips of the dark cold. Under American settler colonial gaze the pagan holy days, particularly during The Dark Time (The Dead Time), were perverted into demonized engagement with ghouls, ghosts, and you guessed it–witches.
So what exactly is the connection between witches and Halloween? Well, history dictates that as Christianity spread across western Europe, it altered the persona of those whose spirituality was nature-based: animists. The Doom Book written during the Anglo-Saxon era and later details the laws enacted by successive ruling aristocracies in an effort to stem the peoples’ use of frithgard, útiseta, Ancestor veneration, divination, tending the dead, and Nature-based rituals. It was a means to land-grab what had been common territories throughout Europe, enslave their inhabitants, and re-source the land as a commodity under imperialist rule. Diverse and rich spiritual cultures with land-based identity were reduced to the iconic witch, a threatening elderly woman in black–usually with her stereotypical black cat familiar. In the grip of the new religion, these wise women became the pin-up girls to tar Samhain and other regional holy days into malevolent occasions, and a new church holiday was established. Of course the PR shift didn’t stop there, and resulted in en masse witch hunts, which caused the deaths of thousands women, from the 15th-18th centuries.
While there are no clear indications of witch trial convictions in North Carolina, many stories about witches color our history. Cross writes about an account just after the Civil War, in which people believed that along the low country in Edgecombe County, Henrietta Creek was infested by witches. He shares documented accounts of a reputed witch known as “Granny” Weiss, who lived on the French Broad River and lifted (or cast) curses that got eerily accurate results. He also shares the story of a witch man from Lincoln County who shapeshifted into a turkey. In Guilford County, a man insisted that three witches nightly stole molasses from his cellar. Apparently eyewitnesses told of a Chowan conjurer who could fly.
- Our modern path into witchcraft has been more grounded. Contemporary tarheel witches tend more toward practical ritual and ceremony, social activism, environmental conservation, and human and other-than-human rights awareness. As well, spiritual traditions in North Carolina are far more diverse than Euro-centric cultures.
- With the reclaiming of nature-based spiritual paths, The Church and School of Wicca (derived from the Old English term for witch, ‘wicce.’) was founded by Gavin Frost and Yvonne Frost in 1968. Headquartered in New Bern for over twenty years, the Church is now based in West Virginia. It was the first federally recognized church of the religion known as Wicca in the United States. As a result, New Bern remains one of the largest centers of the national Wiccan community.
- The Triangle Area hosts Beth Owl’s Daughter, an elder in the worldwide pagan community, tarot visionary, witch of various traditions, and a former Board Member for Cherry Hill Seminary for Pagan ministry.
- Priestess Lynda Jendayia is the Owner of House of Spiritual Roots in Greensboro.
- Diotima Mantineia of Urania’s Well is a practicing witch, astrologer, and gifted tarot reader, Asheville.
- Triangle Area Pagan Alliance (TAPAS), hub for pagan community, education, and visibility, Triangle Area.
- Tamira Cousett, Ancestral Medium and Ritual Facilitator, Triangle Area
- David Salisbury, NC native now residing in DC, is Wiccan clergy within the Firefly Tradition, High Priest of Coven of the Spiral Moon, and focuses on Hellenic Polytheism and Feri Witchcraft. David is the author of Teen Spirit Wicca.
- Me-> Kelley Harrell, NC native, have worked with others to build thriving animistic paths for almost 30 years, through Soul Intent Arts, Triangle Area.
- Curandera Gianna Spriggs, offers Limpiezas and co-owner of Curio, Craft, and Conjure in Charlotte.
- Author, ceremonialist, and mountain witch, Byron Ballard cultivates Appalachian folk magic, a traditional folkway that she calls “hillfolks’ hoodoo”, Asheville.
- Well-known groups include the Dragon’s Cauldron reclaiming tradition based in central NC, Church of the Earth (COTE) maintains Gaia’s Gardens, a gathering place for rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations in Raleigh, and Circle of the Coiled Thicket a group for gay or bisexual men in and surrounding the Durham/Chapel Hill .
We shouldn’t leave the cats out of the discussion completely, though. In my search for the history of witches in North Carolina, one theory associating black cats and witches insisted the crones shapeshifted into ebony felines in order to slip into the shadows.
Something to keep in mind, next time one crosses your path.
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