When Byron Ballard took the stage at the 2017 Mystic South Conference, it was clear that she was no stranger to alternative medicine. The author and self-proclaimed village witch instructed a crowd on the uses of elderberry (“Can help fend off any number of nasty coughs and colds”), and mugwort (“Put the leaf inside your pillowcase to help promote lucid dreaming”).
Call it what you want—folk magic, witchcraft, spells,(Ballard endearingly calls it “hillfolks’ hoodoo” in her book)—but according to the conference at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Atlanta that day, the ancient practice of Southern Appalachian folk healing is still very much alive.
Southern Appalachian folk healing makes use of the land, calling upon plants, herbs, dirt, prayers, and chants to heal the sick and ward off evil. Like most things in the US, its traditions were formed by combining cultural practices from around the world. “There’s a combination of European, African, and Native American influences,” says Sara Amis, a writer and practicing pagan.
Ballard comes from a long line of Appalachian women, most of them regarded as healers and witches in their own right. Long ago, these women were critical pillars in their community, especially in the rural Appalachian towns. Too far from any western doctor, most families relied on healers and midwives to give medical advice, treat illnesses, and deliver children.
Today, women like Ballard continue the magic. “Theirs is a land-proud culture that holds fast to its traditions, ones that are still being practiced in all new manifestations today,” says Beth Ward, writer for Atlas Obscura. While we may live in a world that tends to call the doctor before the homeopathic healer, one can only hope these magical customs continue to be passed on to generations to come.
To learn more about Southern Appalachian folk healing, go to Atlas Obscura.
Photo: Olivia Snow via Unsplash