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 bias in the formation of our views on native spiritual traditions, women, or magick as they pertain particularly to Halloween, or Samhain, for those of western European persuasion. Samhain, which falls specifically at the midpoint of Scorpio between the Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice (Cross Quarter at 15 degrees of Scorpio, for the star geeks), is typically celebrated on the Christian holiday of All Hallow’s Eve, 31 October. Likewise northern European cultures celebrated Alfablot this time of year. What originated as seasonal honorings of the dead, the Ancestors, and closing harvest celebrations evolved into a demonized observation of 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, so it altered the persona of those whose spirituality was nature-based–animists. Diverse and rich spiritual cultures 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 into a malevolent occasion, 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 animal rights awareness.
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.
David Salisbury, NC native now residing in DC, is Wiccan clergy within the Firefly Tradition, and is High Priest of Coven of the Spiral Moon. David is the author of Teen Spirit Wicca, and a contributor in the anthology Witch Every Day: 365 Tips and Tricks for Magickal Living.
Reclaiming Traditions are strong here, as well as flavors of Gardnerian Wicca, Alexandrian Wicca, Feri Tradition, Stregheria, Hedgecraft, Kitchenwitchery, Appalachian Folk Magick, Modern Soul Tending, Seidr, and other paths of witchcraft. Well-known groups include Coven Oldenwilde in Asheville, Dragon’s Cauldron based in central NC, and Raleigh Fruitcakes, a queer-identified Pagans and allies group.
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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