October 11, 2012 12:14:35 PM
It is a chaotic world out there, and we may often be fooling ourselves that we are in control of what happens to us within it. The forces of randomness are constantly at work in ways none of us can completely understand, but we like to feel we are calling the shots. Even when we are not really in charge, we like to think we are, and we like philosophies and books that tell us how to overcome the chaos. Not all of these ways of thinking can be correct; think of all the religious believers in all ages certain that their particular beliefs are controlling things, but even if one religious belief is the right one and enabling such control, the control offered by the others must then be illusory. That isn't to say that illusory control isn't important. Take, for instance the book The Long Lost Friend, which is "perhaps the most influential and well known of all the grimoires, or books of magic, to originate in the New World." This is according to Daniel Harms, a researcher who concentrates on magic and folklore, and who has annotated the most authoritative edition of the book, The Long Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire (Llewellyn Publications). This edition is heavily annotated and bears the editor's explanatory and introductory essays, but there can be no doubt that some will be using it for the purpose for which it was originally printed in 1820, and then translated into English first in 1846 with the subtitle A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies, for Man as Well as Animals: Of Their Virtue and Efficacy in Healing Diseases, etc. The book remains a resource for spells in Hoodoo and paganism. It has entered the digital age; not only are its spells available online, but Harms says "the proprietor of a popular online spiritual supply shop has listed Hohman's book as one of her two top sellers."
This curious work, however, is not a throwback to a pre-Christian pagan tradition. Harms says that some authorities maintain that the Pennsylvania Dutch, who had a tradition of this sort of grimoire, included a core of pagans, but The Long Lost Friend cannot be evidence of this. Some of the charms included within it are ancient; there are a couple that are based on the famous Sartor Square, which was found in the ruins of Pompeii. Reprints of the book sometimes claimed some sort of connection to the healing powers of American Indians, but its spells and cures do not come from that source. Like most grimoires, this one harnessed the best available supernatural beliefs, Christian and specifically Catholic. Typical is a "A good remedy to stop Bleeding," which consists of saying three times, "This is the day on which the injury happened. Blood, thou must stop until the Virgin Mary bring forth another son."
The author of the original, John George Hohman, thought he was doing religious business. In his introduction he asks, "Do I not deserve the rewards of God for it?... Besides that I am a poor man in needy circumstances, and it is a help to me if I can make a little money with the sale of my books." Hohman seems completely in earnest, not at all a deliberate fraudster. He was a German Catholic who came to America from Hamburg in 1802, and made his living publishing hymns, books of catechism, and apocryphal gospels. The target audience for The Long Lost Friend was the isolated American settlers, who had to be their own doctors, veterinarians, and ministers. They found the book useful; if you didn't have a copy, you can be sure a neighbor did. Hohman justified his book and its practices upon a religious foundation. He includes testimonies from ministers who found its cures useful. He insists that if it were not God's will, then God would have stopped the circulation of his book long ago. "I say," he declares, "any and every man who knowingly neglects using this book in saving the eye, or the leg, or any other limb of his fellow-man, is guilty of the loss of such limb, and thus commits a sin, by which he may forfeit to himself all hope of salvation." Indeed, the efficacy of these charms, he assures us, is a valuable weapon against atheism.
Looking at the long list of remedies, a reader can learn what sorts of worries bothered those who consulted this book of charms. For colic, you were to say, "I warn ye, ye colic fiends! There is one sitting in judgment, who speaketh: just or unjust. Therefore beware, ye colic fiends!" A remedy for colic subsequently listed (I suppose if this first malediction didn't work) involved some good old rye whiskey and a pipe full of tobacco. If you needed a general protection, then "Whoever carries the right eye of a wolf fastened inside of his right sleeve, remains free from all injuries." You could use salt in just the right way to make sure your cattle would return home. You could "prevent Cherries from ripening before Martinmas," if that was your need. You could cure the bite of a snake by reciting these lines (and making the sign of the cross three times): "God has created all things, and they were good;/ Thou only, serpent, art damned,/ cursed be thou and thy sting, /Zing, zing, zing." There were many such cures for medical emergencies or chronic conditions. Hohman seems to have had a special chip on his shoulder against doctors, asking where is the doctor who has successfully cured palpitations, mortification, or hideboundedness, or who has banished a wheal? "All these cures, and a great many more mysterious and wonderful things are contained in this book; and its author could take an oath at any time upon the fact of his having successfully applied many of the prescriptions contained herein." (He might have a point; when he compiled his book, the remedies prescribed by the medical profession were often the same sort of folklore.) Even so, the publisher has put a disclaimer at the start of the book, to say the remedies might be "ineffective, toxic, or harmful."
There were many charms against assault by gunfire or by knife. "I conjure thee, sword, sabre, or knife, that mightest injure or harm me, by the priest of all prayers, who had gone into the temple at Jerusalem, and said; an edged sword shall pierce your soul that you may not injure me, who am a child of God." Hohman includes this in a list of several charms for the same thing, and seemed not to realize that if one of the charms really worked, all the others would be superfluous. There were similar recitals that would keep witches away, and one that sounds like it was the sort of things witches would be good at doing, called "A Charm for Bad People," which goes like this: "It is said, that if you suspect a person for badness, and he sits down in a chair, and you take a shoemaker's wax-end, that has not been used, and stick one end of it on the underside of the chair, and you sit on the other end of it, he will immediately make water, and in a short time die." One charm would help with legal matters; anyone who has to go to court, "let him take some of the largest kind of sage and write the names of the 12 apostles on the leaves, and put them in his shoes before entering the courthouse, and he shall certainly gain the suit."
There may be some useful household lore here. If you are stung by a bee, it cannot hurt to apply an onion to the sting, and maybe there are chemicals in the onion to affect the pain; this particular treatment is still current, and was recommended by Ann Landers. There are suggestions for dying cloth red, blue, or green. The more interesting claims, however, are the ones that call upon supernatural forces, which show the worries that were current in Hohman's time. This remarkable book was so popular that it engendered its own folklore; Harms says, "According to some traditions, possession of the book, or even touching a copy, would lead to crows, including one transformed witch, roosting on the roof of the owner's house." I cannot say that crows have happened to my roof since I have had my review copy, but I can testify to one of its other charms. Hohman writes, "Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all his enemies, visible or invisible; and whoever has this book with him, cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drowned in any water, nor burn up in any fire, nor can any unjust sentence be passed upon him." Holy corpse or not, this has all come to pass for me just as Hohman foretold.
5. A Stone's Throw: The veil COLUMNS