In my novel Hellbender, things aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s set in an Appalachia where serpents can be called forth from rocky crevasses and rattlesnake beads can be used to keep the devil away. Springs can be poisoned from afar, and milk can be ‘blinked’–or tainted by a rival witch. The Appalachians of Hellbender may not be the tallest, but they are the oldest, and as such, contain many nooks where beliefs remained untouched for generations. In some instances, the valleys and ridges blocked modernization so well that the culture of the mountain people could be totally forgotten by the ‘outside’ world. In other words, the mountains have let time stand still.
Where streams carved hollows into the lush Appalachian Plateau, families found shelter from the same kind of persecution that forced their ancestors out of Europe a generation earlier. Many of the first Europeans to settle Appalachia were Germans who picked up stakes when Pennsylvania got just a little too crowded for them. They filtered down through the Shenandoah Valley, trickling westward as rivers like the Potomac and James poked holes in the imposing Allegheny Front, and later, through the Cumberland Gap. They brought fiddle tunes, some of which remain virtually unchanged in Appalachia compared to their counterparts in Europe, melodies that either succumbed to contemporary styles or had been forgotten altogether. The new wave of settlers brought their food culture–no place on earth expresses the German love of deep-frying like Pennsylvania, with its potato chips and funnel cakes, and Southern culture’s chicken fried chicken and hush puppies. Even the log cabin, the butt of many an Appalachia joke, came from Germany and Scandinavia by way of those first Europeans.
Living so far from civilization had its quirks. Laws were less likely to be enforced, or just as easily ignored depending on which side of the law you fell. The Whiskey Rebellion is a prime example of folks thumbing their noses at distant lawmakers. The influence of the Catholic Church diminished in much the same way. It wasn’t until Protestant churches ordained ‘lay pastors’ to venture into the wilderness to tame the savages that religion gained a strong foothold in Appalachia. Not that it mattered to some folks, who were content to rely on the traditional culture of their ancestors, the magic that kept the devil away. The Swiss and German-speaking people of Helvetia, West Virginia, still burn an effigy of Old Man Winter on Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten holiday that falls on the cross-quarter day of Imbolc. It’s a tradition that can be traced back to pre-Roman Europe.
At its most basic, the magic of Appalachia is a response to the dangers of the new landscape. Mountain lions, wolves, bears, snakes, harsh winters, floods and unruly neighbors were just a few of the perils faced by those first settlers. In times of severe famine, or when a cow had been cursed (or had simply just stopped producing milk) an axe could provide magical sustenance. The blade is stuck into a tree and a rag is tied to the end. With the utterance of a few magic words, milk will drip from the threads into a bucket providing the family with nourishment. The magical nature of the axe comes to Appalachia via Scandinavia, most likely as a result of the magical nature of Thor’s Hammer.
From Hellbender: “There’s still plenty of women in these hills who can get a full pail of milk from an ax handle or an old rag. And Mary Lewis was one of them. I seen it done with my own eyes a hundred times.”
Hair magic is another theme seen in Appalachian folklore. The idea that you could have control over a person if you possessed something that belonged to them is a belief expressed in many different cultures, not just Appalachian. Folklore says if just one of your hairs found its way into a bird’s nest you’d end up insane. So hair clippings and fingernails are buried, and their location is kept a secret by the buriers. It may sound strange, but the same idea is a building block of Roman Catholicism, with the consuming of the body and blood of Christ.
From Hellbender: “She wrapped the hair around her middle finger and made three crosses over Alex’s lips. Inaudible words flowed from Chloe’s mouth to Alex’s ear. Chloe pulled a silver coin out of her pocket, dropped it into the cup and tipped the purple liquid toward Alex’s gasping mouth. “Put the coin in your mouth, but don’t swallow it.”
The ultimate expression of Old World magic comes from a need for the most basic of human necessities–protection, mostly from enemies, especially from the Devil. Of course, the magic needed for such an old foe is an old one and there are none older than the SATOR Square. SATOR Squares have reportedly been found at the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed in 79 A.D. Early Christians considered it a sign of their coming savior. One found in Manchester, England, in the Second Century was taken as proof Christianity had spread at least that far in less than 200 years.
Essentially a multi-directional palindrome, a SATOR Square is placed above a window. The devil becomes confused by the repeated letters. It’s a key piece of the iconography of the Hellbender cover, designed by Hatch Show Print of Nashville, Tennessee.
From Hellbender: “Jamie picked open a pair peanuts then threw the shells into the fire. “SATOR squares? I don’t know. They’re like puzzles I suppose. They’ve been found on the walls of buildings destroyed by Vesuvius at Pompeii. Early Christians say it was a message from God saying their savior was on his way.”
He gestured for Dave’s stick and began drawing rows of letters in the dirt. “Five lines of five letters arranged in a square that form multiple palindromes.”
I tried to read the letters, but it was difficult in the low light. I leaned over to see. It read:
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
“Some people say the words are nonsense, but when rearranged in a cross they spell out ‘paternoster’ flanked by an ‘A’ and an ‘O’.” Jamie handed Dave back his stick. “Our father and the Alpha and Omega.” Jamie stomped the letters away with his foot.
Silence fell over the camp. By now the crickets were in full swing. Finally, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut anymore. “In my life I’d never seen anything to prove magic was real. Magic would’ve kept my mom around. Would’ve kept Jane alive.”
I’ve witnessed some crazy/scary things in my time here in Appalachia–mountain lion footprints where mountain lions were thought to be extinct, back-to-back comets after 50 years with none, ball lightning, mountaintop removal. Things that have rational, explanations, even if the explanations are unpopular. But I’ve had even more amazing experiences with people I’ve met and friends I’ve made here–making music, drinking wine, paddling wild rivers.
Something’s going on up in the mountains, but it’s not my job to figure it out. Nobody believed me about the mountain lion footprints anyway. Maybe it has something to do with the people. After all, it’s people who end up passing those stories on. And maybe the stories are so hard to believe because of how they went down. Late at night. Middle of nowhere. Not a credible witness in the bunch.
Or maybe it’s the mountains themselves. Over the last three hundred million years they’re the only real constant in this equation. Moses received the Ten Commandments on a mountain. The gods of ancient Greece lived on a mountain, too. So maybe it’s only in the mountains, my Appalachians, that snakes can be called, and protection from the devil can be obtained with a few rows of ancient letters. Doesn’t matter what I believe, those traditions will be here long after I’ve gone.
Jason Jack Miller hails from Fayette County, Pennsylvania, as in, “Circus freaks, temptation and the Fayette County Fair,” made famous by The Clarks in the song, “Cigarette.” He is a writer, photographer and musician who has been hassled by cops in Canada, Mexico and the Czech Republic. An outdoor travel guide he co-authored with his wife in 2006 jumpstarted his freelancing career; his work has since appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, online, and as part of a travel guide app for mobile phones. He wrote the novels Hellbender and All Saints during his graduate studies at Seton Hill University, where is now adjunct creative writing faculty. He’s been a whitewater raft guide, played guitar in a garage band and served as a concierge at a five star resort hotel in Florida. Now he’s an Authors Guild member. When he isn’t writing he’s on his mountain bike or looking for his next favorite guitar. He is currently writing and recording the soundtrack to his novel, The Devil and Preston Black.