Sacred Space 2014: Appalachian Folk Traditions Panel

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 17, 2014 — 22 Comments

If there was a dominant theme to the 2014 Sacred Space Conference in Laurel, Maryland, it would be Appalachian folk magic, and the teachers from that culture who have emerged within our community. Featured presenter Orion Foxwood, author of “The Candle and the Crossroads: A Book of Appalachian Conjure and Southern Root-Work” spoke to packed rooms that seemed reluctant for their experience with the charismatic teacher to end. Likewise, Byron Ballard, author of “Staubs and Ditchwater: a Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo” gave a rollicking overview of “the joy of hex” to a standing-room only crowd.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard with presentation materials.

So, it stands to reason that a panel featuring Foxwood, Ballard, and Linda Ours Rago, author of “Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing With Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise-Woman Tradition” (among other works) would come to seem like the capstone of the entire weekend. Moderated by Michael G. Smith, an Elder in The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the resulting experience was one filled to the brim with stories, laughter, more stories, explanations of differences in geographic terminology for similar folk-magic practices, even more stories, and emotional evocations of their land and culture.

The Appalachian Folk Traditions panel participants combining their powers for the camera.

The Appalachian Folk Traditions panel participants combining their powers for the camera.

There’s no way I could accurately capture the experience of this panel, so with permission, I recorded the proceedings and now share them with you here. 

Within modern Paganism, and certainly within the many religious movements that overlap with ours, authenticity is important. I think that these practitioners so inspire students and observers because they bring with them a cultural authenticity born of their own experiences. Naturally, when spiritual technologies seated within a specific cultural context are taught in these events, the issue of cultural appropriation comes up (as it did in the Q&A section of this panel). The goal, I think, is to hold onto values of honesty and transparency when given the opportunity to learn from circumstances like these. Their experience is rooted in the land from which they came, and nothing can replicate that. We may learn new spiritual technologies and viewpoints for which to encounter our own day-to-day practices, but we can never become “Appalachian” in the way they manifest, no matter how fervently someone might wish.

Moments like these are opportunities to enrich our understanding of the vital tapestry of magical traditions, and how similar roots can produce very different flowers depending on where they grow. All of these teachers are here to teach, and we should learn from them, while also remembering that we can never become them. So long as we hold that truth, we will be able to become mutually enriched, and events like the Sacred Space Conference can continue to organize unique moments in time like this from a place of curiosity and respect.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Andrea

    Thanks for posting this! I was only able to make Sacred Space on Friday, so I wasn’t able to go to this panel

  • Roberta Ellen Smith Apple

    I am a proud and rerooted Appalachian from southwest Virginia, I can be in TN, WV. NC or KY in next to no time. I weep a lot, and these mountains called me home from Florida, from New York. I used to roll down the car window and gulp the air like tonic when I was on my way home for a visit. We commune with the water, call upon what we call the Princess of the Pellissippi. Pellissippi was the native name for the Clinch River, which is my water.

  • Patty Taylor

    It was a wonderful event. I really enjoyed panel also and cry a few times.

  • Kim Ellis

    Growing up, I ran as far away from my Appalachian heritage as I could. Now I’m crawling back to my roots. It makes me SMILE BIG to read about sensitivity to “cultural appropriation” of a heritage that has been the brunt of jokes as long as I can remember. I only wish I had the strength & maturity years ago to appreciate the depth of magic, knowledge & wisdom present in The Mountains.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Why is it that people only worry about appropriation in some cases, and not others?

    • Deborah Bender

      Here’s my three cents on that:

      1. Not all borrowing from another culture is appropriation. Sometimes it’s cultural exchange or cultural diffusion. IMHO it’s only appropriation when there is a significant power imbalance between the receiver and the donor and the donation isn’t voluntary.
      2. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
      3. Western culture only began to be aware that cultural appropriation is unethical about fifty years ago. There is a practical limit to undoing past acts of cultural appropriation, although the culture suffering appropriation can protest future acts. Once your sacred objects are on display in a museum, it takes a lot to get the museum to give them back.

      One of the oldest and most shameless acts of cultural appropriation in the Western world is Christian use (or from a Jewish POV, misuse) of what Protestants call the Old Testament and Jews call the Bible. Christianity claims the Bible for its own, radically reinterprets it, ignores large sections of it, and then has the nerve to say that the Jews misunderstand their own sacred books. It’s not like Judaism is a dead or recently revived religion. Nobody knows or cares about this except Jews and Biblical scholars. Sometimes you just have to suck it up.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker


      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        1: Who gets to say so? IMHO, power imbalance is irrelevant, if the donor doesn’t get a say.

        2: I may not understand this one, are you saying that the ones who complain the loudest get noticed?

        3: Can but try. Also, would be better to say “western cultures“.

        Why can’t we tell everyone to “just suck it up”?

        • Deborah Bender

          #2–Right. It’s a common saying on this side of the Atlantic.


          It would be rude, and bad behavior would never be corrected.

      • Deborah Bender

        I mentioned Christianity’s relationship with the Tanach in hopes of prompting a thought experiment. What could a group do besides suffering in silence?

        Suppose Judaism said to Christianity, “The Tanach does not belong to you. You’ve abrograted the entire Law, then brought back parts of it selectively. You haven’t studied the Mishnah and the Gemara; you haven’t even read Rashi’s commentaries. You are continually misunderstanding and misapplying our texts. Stop using our Bible in your religion. Stick to the New Testament; that’s yours.”

        Setting aside the Christians who would ignore this demand or be outraged by it, what might thoughtful Christian responses be?

        1. We have as much right to the Tanach as you do. Our Savior was a Jew. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. We became a separate religion because other Jews expelled us from their synagogues. We took our beloved Bible with us, and we aren’t giving it up.

        2. Complying with your demands would not be a matter of removing and replacing a bit here and there. We can’t remove the Jewish Bible from Christianity without gutting our religion. Your demand amounts to saying that Christianity should stop existing, and that’s unreasonable.

        3. Counter proposal: We Christians will acknowledge more frequently that the Tanach comes from the Jews. We will stop saying that the Jews don’t properly understand it. We will hire rabbis and other Jewish scholars to teach required courses on the Bible and on post-biblical Judaism in our seminaries, so that our priests and ministers are better informed about the ways Jews understand and use Biblical passages, instead of relying on Christian apologetics to tell us what Jews believe.

        We will offer adult education courses to Christian laypeople, in which they can study Jewish texts and learn about various Jewish ways of reading and interpreting the Bible. We will do this not only for the sake of good relations, but because we believe that the centuries of Jewish discussion and observance can enrich our own Christian understanding of the texts.

        We will challenge unexamined ideas that Judaism is Christianity without Jesus, and that it stopped developing as a religion two thousand years ago. We will encourage our fellow Christians in other denominations to take similar steps, and we will criticize them when they bash Judaism or Jews from a position of assumed superiority.

        Some Christian denominations are already doing some of the above.

        Let those who have ears to hear, hear.

        • Unfortunately, historically when Christians have bothered to study the texts of Rabbinic Judaism it has all too often been with the intent of using them to convince Jews that Christianity is right, i.e. the Medieval disputations, which could be seen as a further appropriation of Jewish texts by Christians.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Ie, the original Jesus-follower (not yet Christians) post-crucifixion riffle through the text to discover “prophesies” of a messiah who can die.

          • Deborah Bender

            I’m aware of that. Rabbis did not voluntarily participate in medieval disputations, as they were engineered to be no-win situations for the Jewish community.

            By contrast, in European countries with tolerant rulers, such as some of the Moorish kingdoms in medieval Spain, Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars and philosophers exchanged views and worked together. (And before someone points out that religious tolerance in Al-Andalus did not extend to pagans, I’m aware of that too.)

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          The most likely responses would be 1 and 2.

          The next would be number 4 – those who say that the OT is there purely as reference material and is not actually part of Christianity, since Jesus formed a “new covenant”.

          Number three would be an extension of number 4.

          Personally, I don’t really care, they are all Abrahamic, to me.

          • Deborah Bender

            No reason you should care. I’m using it as an example of how different religions that make use of some of the same sources can negotiate their boundaries and relationships in either a mutually respectful or disrespectful manner.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            But what happens when respect can’t be reached?

            Say number two in your thought experiment was the one that came up. What happens then, beyond continued animosity?

          • Deborah Bender

            The group or individual with less power always tries to understand the motivations of the more powerful party, in order to predict what they will do next. The more dominant party can remain blissfully ignorant of the other, because what the weaker party feels or thinks doesn’t affect them very much. Privilege makes people stupid.

            Before one can understand how the other party sees the world, it’s necessary to set aside one’s own grievances and resentments. If both sides think they are the injured party, which is often the case, they both need to let go of that long enough to hear how things look to the other side. Until that happens, you can’t have real dialogue.

            In my thought experiment, I was able to argue a Christian POV. It took some time and effort to get to where I can understand Christian thinking and values at all. Years ago, I asked myself, if Christianity is an awful mistake, why is it so successful? No movement succeeds in the long run by brute force; it has to enlist people’s talents by means beyond fear. So what has Christianity done better than its competitors?

            In the course of answering those questions to my own satisfaction, I learned more about Christianity and now I respect it. So for me, the main motivation was intellectual curiosity.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I was raised Christian, within the Church of England. I get *how* it works.

            Doesn’t mean I am any more accepting of its appropriation, or its dominance.

            For me, it is not about some perceived personal grievance and more about integrity and truth. If something is wrong, then I see no reason why it should not be called on that.

          • Deborah, this strikes me as the best thinking on the subject of cultural appropriate I’ve read in a long time. I really appreciate your thoughts–and wouldn’t mind at all seeing them as a blog post of their own, so I can link to them in the future.

            Thank you.

          • Deborah Bender

            You are welcome and I appreciate the praise.

            I don’t have a blog of my own because responding to other people’s writing seems to be a more consistent motivation for me than coming up with a new essay from scratch on a regular basis. OTOH, sometimes I want to write about something that isn’t on topic for the blogs I follow.

            What I would really like to do is share a blog with a couple of other writers, so we could take turns writing the initial post. Or someone could invite me to be a recurring guest poster on their blog. If someone wants to take me up on either idea, I’m not too hard find (though not on social media).

  • Kelley Harrell

    This was awesome! Thanks for sharing it!

  • Angela Raincatcher

    Thank you for recording this panel and posting it. I missed it during the conference.