Today we’re speaking with Brandon Weston, owner of Ozark Healing Traditions and author of “Ozark Folk Magic: Plants, Prayers, and Healing”.
1. How did you first become interested in the folk magic of the Ozarks?
My interest goes back to childhood. I’m from a multi-generational Ozark family, so I grew up with a lot of traditions, practices, and home remedies that I never thought were a part of some bigger culture. I just thought it was my weird family! For instance, I had a great uncle on my dad’s side who was a wart charmer, specifically a wart buyer. If you had a wart, you’d go see Uncle Bill and he’d pull out a penny or dime and say, “I’ll buy ‘em off you.” And you always knew to take the money and your warts would disappear overnight.
Things like that, and I have so many more examples, were just day-to-day life in the Ozarks. I only ever realized that I myself was a part of an actual culture when I was in college and I found Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore where he discusses all of the stories and traditions I’d grown up with. That was really the starting point for me. A sort of wake up call to my own heritage. After that I wanted to know the state of the Ozarks today. Were these practices still alive? Were there still witches and healers out in the hills? So, I started collecting stories from family first then moved outward into other families and communities across the Ozark region, from Arkansas up and through Missouri.
I didn’t start off as a practitioner at first, that came later. I wanted to be a folklorist like Vance Randolph. But then I met an old healer who kicked me in the rear and said, “You know you’re a part of this story too, right?” Up until that point I’d never considered myself a cultural representative; I was still in the old mindset of a stranger looking in and observing a culture without participating in it. So, I scrapped my work, stopped recording stories, and started actually listening and learning from these amazing keepers of so much power and wisdom. From there it all grew into the path I’m walking currently.
2. What made you decide to write your book “Ozark Folk Magic: Plants, Prayers & Healing?”
It was really a desire to update the story. Nothing has been written about Ozark healing and magical practices from an actual practitioner. And I want to reiterate that because folks don’t often believe me. The only thing that even mentions more secretive practices is Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore and that was first published under the title Ozark Superstitions in 1947. Randolph wasn’t a practitioner and didn’t approach Ozark folk beliefs in a very respectful way. He was notorious for making things up that might appeal to the reader as well as publishing material without the permission of healers. There’s still a taboo amongst many old timers about writing down charms and spells as they believe it will “kill” the charm.
Since Vance Randolph, there has been a lot written about the history of the Ozarks and even the cultural traditions of its people, but still nothing about healing and magic which are so often relegated to the “simple” beliefs of a superstitious people. I knew this wasn’t true. I knew there were complex systems of practice hidden beneath that “simple” surface. So, I wanted to write the book that I would have loved reading as a kid. I wanted to write a work that would not only revitalize my culture but validate people as Ozarkers. We’ve been under the shadow of the hillbilly stereotype for so long and I really just wanted to help people break away from that while also getting in touch with their own magical roots.
3. I’ve noticed a definite uptick in excellent books on magic from the American mountains (yours, “Backwoods Witchcraft” by Jake Richards, and “Mountain Conjure and Southern Root Work” by Orion Foxwood, to name a few). What do you think has brought about an increased interest in this subject matter?
I know that personally, before I was ever a writer or practitioner, I was craving books to read about my own culture but there wasn’t anything out there apart from a few outdated publications. Growing up in this culture, I know the way the rest of the world has looked at us. I know how my grandparents and parents grew up, constantly trying to escape the hillbilly stereotype. Mountain people are sometimes just too nice to say anything when faced with such degrading experiences. Magic is one way for us to escape.
In the Ozarks, secrecy has always been an important part of the work. There’s a famous Ozark saying, “We always lie to strangers.” And it’s not because we’re trying to be rude or unfriendly, but it’s out of utmost respect for the traditions that we keep some things hidden. It used to be a lot more important as magic and healing practices meant survival out in the dangerous mountains. You also didn’t want to risk the conservative community around you thinking you were a witch. Nowadays things are a lot different and many people from mountain cultures are now seeing that a big part of our practice doesn’t need to be so secretive. We aren’t risking the same things as our ancestors were when we practice our magic openly.
Also, for me, I see my own culture dying every day with each passing old timer. I’m sure this is an experience shared by many others. For me, it’s important to share these stories now before it’s too late. Revitalizing the culture and making people proud of their mountain heritage actually helps save traditions because instead of running away from the “superstitions” of their families, people instead get interested in the old traditions and stories and start talking to those with the knowledge. So much has been lost by old timers passing away with no interested family or friends there to carry the torch into the future.
4. Personally, I loved the practical and pragmatic healing process that you provided a flow chart for in “Ozark Folk Magic”? Can you share it with my readers?
Traditionally, the healing process for Ozarkers began with observing the signs of physical illness. In some cases, no expert would be needed and home remedies that every family has would be enough to take care of most contagion. In rare occasions of serious injury or illness an expert would be called in. This was usually what the old timers called a “yarb doctor” or an herbalist. This could also include the granny woman who was traditionally considered a midwife but was also an all-encompassing healer figure for the community. Physical illness was diagnosed through physical means, usually observing the body, for example the color of the eyes or tongue as well as the pulse. Physical illness was treated with physical medicines derived from local plants, sometimes mixed with pharmaceutical compounds like tinctures and resins. Choosing a physical medicine was based on the humoral system as well as the system of hot/cold and wet/dry. A fever, for example, is considered hot/dry so the medicine used would aim at countering that condition and could include “yarbs” or healing plants like mountain mint, which has a cold/wet aspect. Physical illness might also include injuries like burns or cuts. In these cases there are specialized “blood stoppers” and “burn doctors” whose magical gift is focused solely on these areas. They might also be considered alongside a local herbalist as the first line of defense against illness and injury.
In most cases, physical cures would take care of physical illnesses. In cases of prolonged sickness, stronger medicines might be used. Illnesses that persist even at this point, or have strange symptoms that don’t match any know contagion, are suspected to be of a magical origin. At this point a magical expert would be called in to diagnose the real cause of the problem using magical means, usually various divination techniques. If the signs or “tokens” point to a magical cause, then magical cures are sought in the form of ritual, verbal charms, prayers, or creating talismans. Depending upon how serious the condition is, the more intense or involved the ritual might become.
To some extent this process is the same in the modern world. I always recommend folks see a doctor or therapist first before coming to me. I believe that the two sides of the healing process, the physical and spiritual can work together in balance. Many old timers no longer make such a separation between the physical and magical illnesses/cures. For example, one praying granny I met whose sole business was praying over and blessing prescription medications that locals would bring to her. She believed in the power of modern medicine but also knew her gift could make the medicines more effective.
5. I was surprised to learn about how diverse the types of “doctors” are and methods they use. Can you share a brief overview of them and their differences?
These doctors are considered a part of the “old Ozarks” or more traditional culture. You rarely hear these terms used today outside of tall tales around the campfire. Most people call simply call themselves “healers” or even “witches” today. You also on occasion hear someone saying they can “doctor” for illnesses, but this runs the risk of encounters with the law as practicing medicine without a license is still illegal across the region. Many people are much more careful about how they refer to their practice and use specific language to avoid trouble.
Traditionally though, there were a number of Ozark “doctors” or healers. The yarb doctor, as I mentioned earlier, was an herbal expert and specialized in healing using local plants, fungi, and mineral compounds. They rarely incorporated any verbal charms or prayers into their work.
Then there’s the power doctor, who unlike the yarb doctor almost exclusively worked with verbal charms, prayers, ritual, and the creation of amulets and talismans. While they often did use herbal concoctions, it was almost always in a magical way rather than for the benefit of the contained plant chemical compounds.
An all-encompassing figure in the community was the granny woman who was a combination midwife, herbalist, and magical expert. Granny women have often been degraded in many of the folk accounts but their position was often of the utmost importance in the community, especially since there used to be a strict taboo against male healers working on women.
There were also certain experts or specialized healers who worked in curing very specific needs. These include the blood stopper, burn doctor, wart charmer, and the witch master or goomer doctor who specialized in removing hexes and curses derived specifically from a physical assailant in the form of a witch.
6. Do you find people are surprised by the role that Christianity and the Bible play in these magic/healing traditions?
I definitely do. A lot of people in the Ozarks are still a part of a much more conservative Christian background and they automatically view anything called “magic” with witchcraft, which has traditionally been associated with evil. That’s changing, of course, as more and more people are reclaiming the title of witch for themselves, myself included. Ozark healing traditions were never called magic internally up until Vance Randolph and other folklorists like him who brought technical terms from the outside and applied them to the culture. Some of the more conservative Ozarkers still refer to their practice as “spiritual healing,” “praying,” “trying,” and many other old terms that would have separated this work from that of the so-called witch. Ozark culture is a complicated subject, though, and even though there might appear to be this very strict, very Christian exterior at times, this was often a way for healers to safely practice and avoid being labeled as a witch. I think there’s sometimes the mistaken view that more traditional or conservative cultures are therefore more religious and that’s not the case with the Ozarks. Religion or religious culture was often just the outward appearance whereas underneath the practices and traditions were, and still are, as diverse as there are practitioners. So, you might have a healer who is outwardly more traditional or conservative in their culture but underneath that they are working with the fairies in their healing practice, or angels, or other entities that definitely don’t fit into the more religiously conservative culture.
7. You make a good point in “Ozark Folk Magic.” Although it stems from certain traditions that can be traced WAY back, these things still continue to evolve. What evolution have you witnessed, and do you have an idea what may be next?
The first major evolution with Ozark folk traditions came around the beginning of the 20th century when roads got better and towns started building up. This was when tourists from outside the Ozarks starting flocking to the region to get a view of a real-life hillbilly, up close and in person. This was also when the major Ozark folklorists began their work. This influx of interest from the outside created a sort of folk culture revival for people where storytellers and traditional musicians started performing for large audiences and actually making some money. The folk culture became much more outward facing and a lot of the subtle nuances were lost as life became about either appeasing or avoiding the tourists.
The next evolution came in the 60’s and 70’s with the back to the land movement and an influx of outsiders into the hills, many of which were from much larger urban areas, in particular California. These groups were already a part of the New Age movement and would have brought with them different religious and spiritual traditions like yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Wicca, and many others. This clash of cultures with the Ozark hillfolk has lasted up until today in many places, but underneath the surface, many traditional healers and magical practitioners incorporated this new culture into their own.
Currently, more and more people are getting interested specifically in what we might call Traditional Witchcraft, which today often encompasses not only folk magic practices but also an earth-based spiritual system as well as folk herbalism and practical healing methods. This is one of the reasons I see so many people taking on the title of witch; so much information is now contained in such a simple word. This is where I see the practice going. Embracing cultural heritage practices in the form of traditional magic and spirituality, while at the same time taking a critical view of problematic pieces of our own history.
8. Is there a place for lifelong residents of urban environments in this practice?
Of course. Pretty soon even us Ozarkers are going to be in the middle of a vast urban landscape as well. Traditions have to change and move with the times. But, I do think at the heart of Ozark practice is a deep connection to the land, however that might manifest for the individual. While I personally draw a lot of power and inspiration from being out in the woods away from all the modern stuff, towns and cities are a part of the Ozark landscape as well and there’s absolutely a place in this practice for those who draw more from the urban environment than the wilds.
9. What’s next? Do you have any upcoming projects my readers should be aware of?
Right now I’m working on my second book, which so release from Llewellyn next year. It’s going to be all the spells, recipes, and rituals I couldn’t squeeze into the first book. Basically, “Ozark Folk Magic” is the theory and the second book will be all the practice materials.
10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one questions.
Do you have any family or ancestral traditions that you’ve incorporated into your own practice?
Sadly no, and this uptick in folk magic that highlights family/ancestral traditions really drives it home. It makes me a sad panda.
About Brandon Weston:
Brandon Weston is a spiritual healer, medium, and writer living in the Arkansas Ozarks. He is author of “Ozark Folk Magic: Plants, Prayers, and Healing” and owner of Ozark Healing Traditions, a collective of articles, lectures, and workshops focusing on traditions of medicine, magic, and folklore from the Ozark Mountain region. As an active healer, his work with clients includes everything from spiritual cleanses to house blessings and all the weird and wonderful ailments in between. He comes from a long line of Ozark hillfolk and works hard to keep the traditions that he’s collected alive and true for generations to come.
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