Mountain Superstition: Back When Animals Would Get Bewitched

Photo courtesy of Walter Goeppinger
Photo courtesy of Walter Goeppinger

In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters a man with a legion of demons living inside him.  The Bible states that the man “had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains… And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones…”

But when the man saw Jesus, he ran to him, begging for mercy and Jesus spoke and the demons exited the man.  According to the account, the demons asked Christ to allow them to enter into a herd of swine feeding on the countryside, which Jesus allowed, and upon entering the swine, the legion of demonic hogs ran violently down the mountainside “down a steep place into the sea… and were choked in the sea…”

Though this account of possessed pigs, found also in the Gospel of Luke, is the only time we read of bewitched animals in the New Testament, in the early days of American and Appalachian settlement, tales of bewitched animals are too numerous to catalog.

Just about everyone knows of the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials, but few realize that two dogs also lost their lives due to the illogical and impulsive fears of the townspeople.

Massachusetts historian Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, writes, “Since it was believed at the time that witches had animal familiars, or helpers, that they used to do their bidding, many villagers were often on the lookout for these possessed animals, which were thought to take the form of almost any creature, from cats and dogs to birds, oxes, cows or pigs.”

According to Brooks, in October 1692, an afflicted girl accused a neighbor’s dog of trying to bewitch her. The villagers shot the dog immediately; however, after the animal’s death, the local minister declared the dog to be innocent because it was reasoned that if an animal was the devil, it would be impossible to kill — thus the only way to determine if an animal was or was not bewitched would be to attempt to kill it: if it died, it was innocent, if it lived, it was guilty.

As superstitious as the pilgrims of New England were, they were rivaled by the men and women who crested the Blue Ridge and settled in what would become known as the Appalachians.

“Many of them came from lands where superstition existed and living here in the woods where so many strange things were found which they could not explain, they naturally gave a superstitious reason for them… The belief in the power of witches was prevalent in the early days. In fact, these creatures seemed to be the source of the greatest trouble to the pioneer… If the horse’s mane got in a bad tangle some witch had done it. Cows would become bewitched and kick over the milk bucket. Sometimes one could churn and churn and keep on churning and the butter would not come. To break the witch’s spell on the cow, they cut a small piece from the end of the cow’s tail and together with a few drops of her blood and a little of her milk, put them into the hottest part of the fire; the witches could not stand the heat and so they would leave the cow in peace,” wrote G.G. Williams in 1916.

Hogs would often get bewitched as well and they, too, would have their tails cut, but instead of mixing the tail with milk, they would drive a small nail through the tail and then place the severed body part into the hottest part of the fire.

According to Williams, an old German living in Appalachia had lost a large hog. He hunted far and near for her but not finding her, he went many miles away to an old man who was said to be a witch doctor. The witch doctor claimed that a witch had gotten into the hog and she had ran away. The owner was instructed to get a wisp of straw, twist it into a tight knot, put some salt over it, set it on fire and while it was burning to repeat several verses of Scripture; this would certainly scorch the witch out. The man did as he was instructed and in a few days the lost animal returned, greatly to the satisfaction of the owner and much to the credit of the witch doctor.

If a farmer went out to milk his cow and the cow did not produce an adequate supply of milk, it was believed that a neighboring witch had milked her dry.  Though there was no antidote for this, the witch could be discovered by building a new pin for the cow and laying a new towel over the pin.  If a woman passed by the property soon afterwards, she was the witch who had milked the cow dry.

Interestingly, even guns, stoves, spinning wheels, looms and bake ovens did not escape the peculiar power of the witch.

It is said the first glass blowers who came to this country claimed their furnaces, when they did not heat rightly, were bewitched. To break the spell, they did a most cruel thing: throwing live puppies into the fire.

Witches were said to have enjoyed playing strange pranks on people by attacking them in bizarre ways. They would sometimes catch a person out alone at night and would throw a bridle over their heads and force a bit into their mouths — changing them instantly into a horse, upon which they would mount and ride furiously all night over hills and valleys, through woods and briers until they would exhaust them.

It was claimed that cattle could even be killed by witches, who would make “witch balls”, balls made of witch hair, which they would throw at the animals and kill them instantly.

One could never find where the skin had been broken on an animal killed by a witch ball; however, it was said that if the animal would be cut open, a clump of the witch ball could easily be found.

When children got sick the cause might be due to the influence of some woman, usually an old one in the neighborhood. The cure for this was to draw her picture on a paper or board and shoot it with a silver bullet. This was done in Jefferson County once, when they were about ready to shoot, some of the family went into where the accused old woman was to watch the witch fly out of her window.  As the shot was fired, it being close to the house, the old lady jumped at the sudden shockwave of the gun — this was taken to mean she was guilty.

A dog howling at night certainly meant a death in the neighborhood, especially if someone were sick at the time. When any one died someone had to go and tell the bees or there would be another death in the same family within a year.

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