Folk Magic is the magic that was performed by the common folk. By the everyday folk, by Cunning folk, by the practical down to earth people. It is not necessarily Hedgewitchery, nor purely rural farm-based or herbal magic although all of these are somewhat related and intertwined.
Folk magic is sometimes referred to as Low Magic or Dirt Magic. This is as opposed to High Magic or Ceremonial Magic. For the main differences between these two, we need to step back in time a couple of hundred years and more.
High or Ceremonial Magic
High Ceremonial Magic was generally performed by rich men. How do we know they were rich men?
- There are many prohibitions in the Grimoires regarding women. You cannot teach them magic, you cannot speak to a widow during ritual preparation, you cannot come into contact with a menstruating woman during ritual preparation. There is so much misogyny (which was also just the standard way things were) throughout these ponderous tomes.
- The tools, clothing, incenses and oils required were not cheap or easy to attain. Having several knives or swords that were kept purely for magical purposes is an indicator of wealth and of nobility. If you had the means to have such a wasteful thing as a knife that was deliberately blunt, then you were rich.
- Having the available free time to devote yourself to days and weeks of ritual purification, cleansing, prayer and meditation means that you were not working from sun up to sun down. It means you did not have to worry about where your next meal was coming from, taking care of your animals yourself or taking part in the production of your food. The only people able to do this were wealthy or clergy.
- The simple fact that they were literate and able to read the Grimoires, to study the heavens for Astrological transits and to draw the shapes, sigils and often Hebrew lettering required for a circle. This indicates an education which was generally only available to the wealthy or clergy.
Yes there will be exceptions to all of this, there always is. I'm speaking in general terms.
High or Ceremonial Magic is strictly structured, it requires that all instructions are followed to the letter. That the right words, prayers, actions, symbols or sigils be used in the right order, in the right place at the right time. There is a vast body of learning and theoretical knowledge required for this magic.
The focus and purpose of most magic of this type is to make contact with Angels, Demons and Celestial Intelligences. To have those spirits do your bidding and bring you the results you require. These results all lead to The Great Work, which is to raise the magician to a level of purity, holiness and power that they achieve unity with God.
Yes this is greatly simplified for the purpose of this discussion.
Folk Magic was what was performed by the not so rich. It was the magic of the common people. It was practical, using what is readily available and it was performed by anyone and everyone. There were the Cunningfolk, Wise Ones or Herbwives that people could go to for special help. But at the same time, there was much that the folk did for themselves. Many of our superstitions, old wives tales and folklore still contain hints of the simple folk magic of a few hundred years ago.
Until Gerald Gardner did his thing in the 1940s and 1950s to claim the word and redefine it, Folk Magic was not witchcraft. Witchcraft was purely evil intentioned magic. These days we seem to forget that simple fact.
Today, Folk Magic is still the practical magic. It is tangible, common sensical (I will make that a real word one day) and anyone can do it with a bit of training and work. Some combine psychic abilities with their Folk Magic and many don't.
Folk Magic and Practicality
Being practical, something which is dear to my heart and an absolute virtue, Folk magic has no need for special or specific items. Even the newer books on the subject contain huge appendices of substitutions. You use what you can lay your hands on right now. If you want to wait and perform your magic when you have that particular item, herb, gemstone or candle available, then by all means do it. But if you can't wait or you can't afford or source that item then whatever you do use is just as valid.
A former acquaintance used to wax lyrical over how your pantry herbs had no power. Any Witch Worth Her Salt would know this and only buy certified organic herbs from a reputable witchcraft supplier - which was supposed to be her. This attitude (all self-serving motivations aside) seems to be thankfully in the minority. Many reputable Witches well worth their salt speak of grabbing pantry items to perform their magic. Having a special cupboard where your magical versions of culinary herbs goes seems the opposite of practical to me.
In my own experience, most of my serious magic has been to deal with an emergency. I've had a need to do something right here and right now, it will not wait until the planets are in the right alignment or my daffodils are blooming or anything else. I may have some of the things I want previously collected, dried and stored, but equally, I may not. It doesn't mean I need to spend time looking for a substitution or a spell that will only require what I have on hand. It means I need to be practical and create my spell using what I do have.
When I talk about things previously collected and stored, that speaks of another level of practicality. Be aware and conscious of what's around you. Seeing that the hawthorne hedges are in fruit and collecting the berries. Picking up that unusual stone when you see it. I carry spare bags in my car and if I see something I might need on the side of the road, I will stop (if I'm not on time constraints) and gather what I need. Sometimes that's flowers or berries and sometimes that's road kill. I gather the rainwater during thunderstorms, morning dew, the water from mists and fogs, hailstones and snow. It's not just a herb thing.
For many modern Witches, anything Christian is absolute anathema. They're horrified and offended that there can be such a thing as a genuinely Christian Witch. The truth of the history was that many of our Folk Magicians were Christian. Not as a safety pretend-to-be-so-you-won't-be-persecuted thing, but genuinely Christian. Folk Magic is not religious. Adding prayers and Psalms gave it an added boost, an extra layer of blessing. Many people also included their faith into almost everything they did, including it in Folk Magic was just an extension of that.
I often cringe at some of the rhyming stuff that is bandied about. I hear Charmed, I often hear overly flowery flaky ideas, really lousy poetry or poorly chosen words being used just to make it rhyme. I often have an unfair aversion to any rhyming spell. I say unfair, because some of the most successful work I have done has involved a rhyming chant that I wrote myself. It's a simple two line chant that I repeat as I raise energy that I weave through my words and give them power.
Again, go back to some of the stuff that we do have from our ancestors. Nursery Rhymes.
Rain rain, go away, come again another day,
Little children want to play, rain rain go away.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.
Folk Magic and Positivity
In all of my research into Folk Magic, my many years of study and practice, I have yet to find anything (that isn't brand spanking new and New Age as well) to say that Folk Magicians were nice people. There are no prohibitions against cursing or hexing, no dire warnings of rebounds, threefold law or cobbled Westernised (and bastardised) versions of Karma.
There are spells and folklore giving advice on how to curse, how to protect against curses and hexes and plenty of simple spells to coerce someone - from making a thief own up or return your property to making a shotgun shoot crookedly or laming a racehorse. There are equally spells and folklore for healing, for stopping your cattle from straying, for divination into all things and for bringing good luck into a home.
Like most things in Witchcraft, the ethics and ways to use it are purely up to the Witch or Folk Magician.
Sources and further reading:
The Book of The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage
or this version
The Key of Solomon the King
or a revised edition here
The Long Lost Friend
The Works of Henry Cornelius Agrippa (most notably the Three Books of Occult Philosophy)
Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus
The Witch of Forest Grove - Sarah Anne Lawless
Grumpy Old Witchcraft - Cassandra Latham-Jones
Plus a variety of awesome groups and people on facebook!