[Laurelei Black — I recently got the opportunity to talk with Cory Thomas Hutcheson (co-host of the long-running New World Witchery podcast and author of 54 Devils and New World Witchery: A Trove of North American Folk Magic about his spiritual and magical practice — and where they intersect with his professional research.]
ev0ke: How do you describe your personal spirituality? Does it have a name, or is it more free-flowing and eclectic?
Cory Thomas Hutcheson: I kind of see myself as a sort of walking, talking spiritual crossroads with a few different intersections laid over each other in me (I strongly identified with the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz pointing this way and that all at once). I’ve generally described myself as an animist for most of the past decade, and I think that if I’d had that word when I was nine years old it would have saved me a lot of time and searching! I know that term can get complicated, and have lots of shades of meaning to others, so I’ll say that to me animism is a spiritual worldview that says most of the world is alive and at some level conscious or sentient (although often not quite in the way we define those terms based on human perspectives). It also means I believe in a cosmos populated by not only the plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, and voids we see and understand through our scientific and physical powers, but also by creatures, forces, feelings, and absences that are beyond those powers (what we might call the “supernatural”).
I also usually refer to myself as a witch. With the term “witch,” my definition is essentially a folk magical practitioner who has regular intercourse with both the “real” and “other” worlds, and who does not shy away from working whatever magic is needed, even if that might not seem “nice” to others (although most of the magic I do is for beneficial purposes on the whole). Magic and enchantment are essential to the way I live my life, and being a witch adds a bit of a gritty, gravely, gnarled edge to it—a reminder that just because something is magical doesn’t mean it’s not also potentially dangerous or a little wicked. And I also have a strong historical, familial, ancestral connection to Catholicism. I’m not an orthodox Catholic by any stretch of the imagination, but folk Catholicism has been deeply influential on me, and I’ve found elements of the practice have resonated with me a lot over time. I don’t approve of so much that the capital-C Church has done over time, but the things that people have created from those rituals and practices for themselves does have some real beauty in it. So those three pieces are very much part of my spiritual identity, and each influences/shapes/enhances the other.
ev0ke: When (and how) did you discover your interest in folklore, folk magic, and witchcraft?
CTH: I’ve had a deep interest in folklore and magic since I was very young, think mid-single-digits. I used to spend time trying to shape clouds with my words and mind, carrying around a big wooden staff and standing on a “mountain” (a dirt mound at the edge of our subdivision) trying to command the winds, and trying to make potions in the bathroom using things I found outside (mostly clover or wood sorrel, dropped in water along with toilet paper “flowers” that would magically “bloom” when they hit the water).I’d check out any book on folklore, charms, or even a hint of “real” magic to it. When I was around 11 or 12, I wound up pestering my mom for a book I found in a bookstore that included elements of Wicca, English folklore, and random bits of witchery floating around in it. She was a little hesitant but in the end I got it, and that led me into seeing those things woven together into something more whole—almost like words coming together to finally form a sentence, articulating just what I knew was already going on around me in the world. That grew over time to the point where I couldn’t help myself and I had to dig more, dig further, learn as much as I could about all of this astounding, bewitching stuff I could find!
ev0ke: You and your podcast partner Laine have been exploring the concept of “New World Witchery” with each other and the community since January 2010. Over the course of 200+ episodes, 230+ blog posts, 2 books (and another on the way), and several articles/chapters, has your definition changed at all?
CTH: I think if we were starting over again, I’d likely find some alternative to “New World” Witchery, which sets up the question of “new to whom?” and starts from a place of prioritizing European and European American perspectives. But beyond that, I’d say that we’ve always had the subtitle “The Search for American Traditional Witchcraft” on our site, and that means that everything we do is a part of that search. We have made some wonderful connections over the years that have been extremely generous in sharing their folk magical practices with us, and I feel like we’re learning more all the time. What I might have defined in 2010 as “Traditional Witchcraft,” for example, would likely look a little different in 2022 just because I’ve been exposed to so many more perspectives and so much more information. I know there are lots of folks who would also like to see us separate out the various folk magical practices from what we call “witchery” and “witchcraft,” as well, but I also think that keeping those terms as part of the conversation has let us look at how folk magic gets seen by those using it (and those around it). So a woman using sheep’s tea or rabbit tobacco in an Appalachian tonic might not call her healing witchcraft, while her neighbors might use that label. We can also then look at what gets labeled folk magic and witchcraft across different cultures and compare how they might be similar (so the omens and signs that Appalachian woman uses to forecast garden weather might be very similar to similar signs as used by an hechicera in Mexican folk practices or a yarb doctor in the Ozarks, and that helps us see an underlying pattern of magical belief, use, and practice more clearly).
ev0ke: You hold a Ph.D. in American Studies with an emphasis in Folklore, Ethnography, and Ethnicity. Your books are superbly researched, and the same scholarly care is evidenced in the NWW podcast. Do you have any favorite sources of research and inspiration?
CTH: I spend a lot more time on the Library of Congress website than is probably healthy, especially in the American Folklife Center’s archival materials (I’ve actually considered getting a tattoo that says GR81 because it’s the LOC designation for “Folk Beliefs and Superstition,” which often includes witchcraft—and also because it can be read as “Great One”). The collections put together by Works Project Administration (WPA) agents like Zora Neale Hurston or by roving folk music enthusiasts like Alan Lomax have a home there and you can see and hear their work in context really well. I also love looking at ethnographic field recordings (such as the “Voices from Slavery” series at the LOC) or ethnographic documentary work (such as you can find on a site like FolkStreams). I also do a lot of digging in journals like the Journal of American Folklore and Western Folklore, and I make liberal use of my access to JSTOR (an academic research engine). And truly, I find that talking to people and just getting them to tell their stories is the most informative and enlightening way to approach folklore research. So I love reading listener messages, sitting down to conversations with magic users, showing up at folk events and seeing what people are doing—all of that. I should also say I do have some favorite books, including an American witch lore collection called The Silver Bullet, by Hubert Davies, the Frank C. Brown folklore collection, a number of university archives (like the Mac Berrick and Center for PA Culture Studies ones at Penn State or the Shoemaker archives at Ursinus College),and my beloved Foxfire books collection. Really getting to know all of that material could easily take a lifetime (but that doesn’t stop me from getting more books when I can!).
ev0ke: What does your process look like for bringing folklore out of a theoretical, literary, and/or academic place and into your embodied, living practice?
CTH: This is a great question, because it gets into some issues that come up with the concept of “academic poaching.” Anthropologist Diane Purkiss has written on this problem and how readily we in the witchcraft community embrace academia, but then have a number of people who will misrepresent it or cherry-pick for their own purposes. On the one hand, I think we all do things like that from time to time, just because it’s easy to get enthusiastic about material we find and like. But the major thing we have to remember is that every magical working is about the work AND the context. Just because I find a spell in an ethnography of African American folk magic (like a book by Yvonne Chireau or Jeffery Anderson) doesn’t mean it’s instantly available to me (a white person). In some cases the cultural context is very specifically locked, and while I can be interested in it and learn from it, putting it into practice without the full experience and understanding that comes from being African American is disrespectful and likely to short-circuit any effect it might have. On the other hand, there are elements of spells I might find in a book like Chireau’s Black Magic that I could parallel to other forms of Southern magic that I do have context for (as a born-and-raised Southerner), and so I might be able to work with those more readily (although I’d still want to do the work to make sure I understand the African American context as best I can, too). One thing that folklore shows, though, is that practices do get shared and altered over time through communities and individuals. That means that having an original take on a version of a cloth bag spell could be my contribution to the folk tradition of that charm, a tradition that could easily encompass things like a packet spell from Southern conjure, a mojo from African American Hoodoo, or a braucher bag from Pennsylvania German braucherei practices.
ev0ke: Which branches of (or topics within) American witchery are drawing your personal and professional interest right now?
CTH: I’m pretty deeply embedded in a region with a lot of spiritual and religious culture and tradition, since I’m in Central Pennsylvania. I have people around me practicing braucherei (a folk healing tradition); Urglaawe (a PA-German heathenry practice); Moravian spirituality from Bohemia; Catholicism from several cultures such as Italian, Irish, or Latinx; and even some of the religious sects like the Ephrata Cloister. I’ve been lucky enough to make friends with a number of folk practitioners all over North America in the past year, ranging from hechiceras and brujos to swamp witches, French Candadian sorcieres, and Ozark healers. They all have fascinating folk practices and traditions that I’ve only gotten a little taste of so far, but I love learning about them all. I’ll also say I’m paying a lot of attention to Asian American spiritual traditions, like Taoist divination and sorcery (thank you to Benebell Wen for her great resources on this) and I’ve always had an interest in Shinto practices as well. In my own practices, I find I’m turning much more to divination and charm work to do the magic I need most often, and I find a lot of value in things like cunning craft from the British Isles, for example. Truly, though, there’s no shortage of inspiring cultures and practices here.
ev0ke: Tell us about your current or upcoming project, please (and thank you).
CTH: I’m editing a volume for Llewellyn that will be part of their “Complete Book” series, focusing on North American folk magic. We’ve got about two dozen people covering a range of traditions in the book, explaining their cultural context and their own personal experiences with those practices, too. It’s going to be very much from practitioners’ perspectives, and also provide some insight into how folk magic in North America is incredibly diverse and wonderful. I’m also working on a revision to my cartomancy book, 54 Devils, which will add in some sections on doing spell work with cards and creating sigils based on them. Laine and I are co-writing a book on everyday folk magical objects, which we are hoping will be out in 2022 or 2023, and it’s a lot of fun to work together with her on that! And beyond that, I’ve got ideas and proposals in the works for a few other books, including an academic book on the folk use of occult games. So busy, busy all the time!
ev0ke: Where would you like readers and listeners to find you and your work?
CTH: The best place to find out things related to my folk magical research is on our website, www.newworldwitchery.com, where we have our podcasts and articles as well as links to things like books and research resources. You can also find me on Academia.edu or at my website www.corythomashutcheson.com (if you want to know about things like my teaching).
ev0ke: Anything you’d like to add?
CTH: I really appreciate the opportunity to share all of this with you, and I hope your readers will be enthusiastic about jumping in and exploring the folk magic in their own lives and communities, too! If they have stories of folk magic or traditions from their families or regions, please do reach out to me, as I love to hear those!
ev0ke: Thanks, again, to Cory for taking the time to share with us about your work and witchcraft!