Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Pins and Needles and Nails

Generally speaking, pins, needles, and nails are protective elements in folk magic. They are one of the elements included in many British witch bottles, which function by drawing in malevolent magic and trap it. One source describes a witch doctor who recommended that a man “take a Bottle, and put his Wives Urine into it, together with Pins and Needles and Nails, and Cork them up,” first to be set on the fire to explode and then later buried in the yard to heal his wife from an illness (Saducismus triumphatus). In Appalachia, Scots-Irish settlers held onto these traditions and passed them down. Here, pins, needles, and nails can be used for protection, healing, divination, love magic, and cursing.


Driving nails into objects was often an apotropaic measure. Nails could be driven into trees, the ground, doors or walls, and even human skulls. Richmond and Walkup note that “The Irish settler’s cure for a headache was to drive a nail into an old human skull” (145). Sometimes, in the case of trees, doors, and walls, the nails would be driven in the shape of a cross. Corey Hutcheson of New World Witchery mentions that “there are several agricultural spells which involve driving iron nails or spikes into trees to prevent fruit from dropping off of it” (“Pins and Needles”). Richmond and Walkup also note a belief that if one finds “an old nail in the road, and if you carry it in your pocket, it can ward off the Evil Eye” (145). They can also be used to identify witches (i.e. malevolent magic workers). If a witch is suspected, one might “drive an iron nail into a footprint in the dirt, and the person returns and takes the nail out, it is a sign that she is a witch” (83). Presumably, the witch would be tormented by the nail (in their foot?) and be drawn to the footprint, leading to their discovery.


Pins tend to be more assertive (rather than simply preventive) implements in Appalachian folk magic. Hutcheson mentions an “old-world carry-over (likely from England, but found in Southern communities where conjure is common) says that burying a pin taken from the clothes of a living person with a dead person will cause the target to die within a year.” However, giving a pin to an old woman can remove warts (Farley 23). Pins also frequently have a divinatory function. For example, if a pregnant woman were to find a pin, it was a sign she would give birth to a boy (needles, which we’ll discuss further down, found by a pregnant woman indicated the baby would be a girl). In addition, there is a ritual to determine how events would turn out:


“To divine whether a future event would be good or bad, thirteen pins coated with oil were placed in a small bowl filled with spring water. If any of the pins crossed, the event would go badly.” (Richmond and Walkup 16)


A needle could also be used to determine the sex of a baby by “threading a needle with red thread and suspending it over the womb of a pregnant woman. If the needle rotated in a clockwise motion, the baby was a boy. If it rotated counterclockwise, it was a girl” (ibid.) The needle, like a sieve and shears, served as a kind of rustic pendulum. Broken needles could be signs and omens as well. If a seamstress breaks her needle in half while sewing, for example, it would be a sign of good fortune. However, if the seamstress were sewing a wedding dress when the needle breaks, it would be an omen of an unhappy marriage (62,84).


Needles could also be used in love magic. We see an example of this in the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle,” in which the heroine directs the eponymous instruments to draw her future husband to her. In the story, she animates the needle by singing: “Needle, my needle, sharp-pointed and fine, / Prepare for the wooer this house of mine” ("Witches Incognito: The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle"). At her request, the needle fixes up the house to impress the prince as he makes his way to her. Richmond and Walkup note that “If a girl wants to guarantee the success of her love life with the man of her choice, she should stab a corpse with a needle, then cover the needle in a winding sheet and bury it under soil taken from a grave” (146). This is similar in some ways to the death curse via pins mentioned above. It’s likely that needles were so associated with matters like love, weddings, and childbirth because of their cultural association with “women’s work” and the traditional importance of these things to women, as dictated by their communities.


Common, mundane objects are not without power. Anything we create, and anything we use to build and make, is imbued with the energy of that making. What I love about folk magic is how accessible it is -- it's for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live, and how much money they make. All that's required is a willingness to learn, to perceive connections, and to engage with them. Magic comes from us, from the other beings in the world around us -- even small, humble things like pins, needles, and nails -- and our relationships with them.


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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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