Anyone who travels through Appalachia knows that it takes a while. The backroads dip through hollows and twist through the mountains, with endless offshoots of narrow roads that disappear into the hills. This isolation is a distinguishing feature of the Appalachian Mountains that has helped shape much of the region’s culture and the legacy of granny witches as faith healers. When it takes a half an hour or more to get into town, and town is little more than a supply and feed store, self-reliance and strong beliefs become crucial.
GRANNY WITCHES: A NECESSITY FOR DAILY LIVING
In the old days, hospitals were often too far away and a little suspicious to mountain people. When accidents and illnesses happened, the locals relied on granny witches. These traditional folk healers were skilled in herbalism, home remedies, spells, and energy work.
Granny magic healed sickness, birthed babies, removed curses, and predicted the weather. In the far reaches of Appalachia, granny witches were often the sole source of medical care and spiritual guidance. Their practices were simple, inventive, and always grounded in the natural world.
Granny witchcraft has its roots in ancient Scots-Irish traditions that were brought over to Appalachia as early as the 16th century. As these immigrants built their new lives, these old ways quickly mutated into something uniquely Appalachian. Native American traditions blended with old-world beliefs to create a concoction of spiritual and medicinal cures.
Granny witches sitting in front of her cabin in the Appalachian Mountains
Sarah Wilson by Lewis Hine Public Domain
For centuries, granny witches studied patterns in the land and properties of the plants that surrounded them. They harnessed the power of their natural and supernatural resources to guide and aid their com
munities. An inherently mysterious oral tradition, granny magic was rarely taught outside the immediate family, and never to outsiders. Much of the knowledge died with the granny witches when they passed on, creating a broken history of their practices.
KEEPING THE TRADITION ALIVE
While much has changed in the Appalachians over the centuries, the granny witch tradition is still alive. The first Foxfire Book in 1972 devotes a significant number of its pages to folk magic. Right next to articles explaining how to build a log cabin or slaughter a hog, you can find instructions on how to plant your garden according to the phases of the moon and an exhaustive list of home remedies.
The legacy of the granny witches is a combination of ancient spiritual traditions and practical natural remedies, what the Foxfire book calls “affairs of plain living.” Everything from an earache to kidney failure has a prescribed cure. Some of these cures will be familiar to anyone who has studied herbalism, such as wild peppermint tea for an upset stomach. Some are more symbolic, such as the instructions on how to stop a nosebleed: “Hang a pair of pot hooks about your neck.”
THE GRANNY WITCH LEGACY COMES FULL CIRCLE
Undoubtedly, much of the power and influence that these grannies wielded drew their strength from the unwavering beliefs of those under her “spell.” Although folk healers had mostly disappeared from the hills of Appalachia by the 20th century, their focus on pragmatism, ingenuity, and self-reliance continues to have significant appeal. Modern herbalism, midwifery, foraging, and homesteading carry on the spirit of the Appalachian granny witches today.