Showing posts with label witchcraft. Show all posts
Showing posts with label witchcraft. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who Skinned the Black Cat? Online Botanica sells the Face of a Black Cat as Good Luck Curio




I want to know, since when was a black cat face used for good luck?

I don't quite remember how I stumbled upon this page the other day, all I know is that I did.  I normally like to peruse Papa Jim's Botanica site because he carries stuff I don't carry. However, this is one item I won't be purchasing from him or anyone else, and I certainly won't be aspiring to carry it.

The website says "Black Cat Face. Place in your home or business for Good Luck, Protection From Evil."

"This product was added to our catalog on Thursday 24 February, 2011."

Now, I am all for  the rare and hard to find curios and I will climb a mountain or mountains (literally) to get them. But a black cat face?

I don't even know where to begin with this one.

Well, I posted a link to it on my Facebook page and got a lot of responses, which is why I thought I would blog about it and do a little scientific examination of the evidence. And, being the scientist that I am, I have an inquiring mind and I want to know, who skinned the black cat?

Any research begins with a question. We want to find out something, so we research it. We form a hypothesis and develop a theory, collect our data and then methodically go about proving or disproving the hypothesis. The results may or may not support the hypothesis. Either way, if we can confirm one way or another it's good research, even if we don't confirm the initial hypothesis because at least we have accurate information about the issue at hand and draw a conclusion or conclusions based on facts. We end up with more information than we had in the beginning of the research so we add to a specific body of knowledge that everyone can draw from. Not only do we benefit the scientific community with new found knowledge, we also benefit society at large.

Research also begins with something the researcher is passionate about. When I saw this image and the accompanying advertisement, I was appalled. And I am  not alone. Here are a couple of the comments that supported my initial reaction:

Sorcha Puridai Isn't there some law against that? It should be reported. If it originates from outside the country, it's illegal to import - or export if its inside. There should be a way to shut this down. More education is needed because there are superstitious and impressionable people out there who support this kind of trade ...

Fred Cislo Jr Okay that is just wrong! I would be pissed if somebody told me they bought that!

And there were more. but then, there was this post:

Willa Wylde im betting its not a cat face at all but a fox, you can buy them from various leather places like Tandy, i used to use them to make dream catches and such it even looks like the fox shape...just saying

It's always good to have different opinions about things. Sometimes we can't see the other side of Exu's hat because we can't stand on both sides of the street at one time. But, if we are open-minded and don't jump to conclusions, we can discover the truth based on the evidence at hand.

After reading Willa's comment, I questioned whether or not it was in fact a fox and not a cat. I am not convinced either way...yet.

Now I am writing an article about black cat sacrifice in Volume 2 of Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly so I don't want to repeat that here, but I do want to give a little contextual background for our informal study of this alleged black cat face. There is no doubt that the use of black cats in magick has a long history in Europe and in hoodoo. Cats played a large role in ancient Egyptian society, for example, as they were used for pest control and were deified (i.e. Bast, Mafdet). In fact, cats  were afforded the same mummification and burial as people were. In ancient Greece, cats were revered and if one was found hurting or killing a cat, even accidentally, the punishment was death.

In New Orleans Voodoo, black cats have been the subject of controversial sacrifice  in the past, particularly with regards to finding the one bone in the body that is all powerful.

Thanks to Robert Tallant and other writers who focused on specific excerpts of his mostly inaccurate and sensationalized account of New Orleans Voodoo, the urban legend of the black cat as THE sacrificial lamb of New Orleans Voodoo has become an undisputed historical fact. He even has a chapter in his book Voodoo in New Orleans called Skin a Black Cat with your Teeth. According to Tallant, “ Sacrifice and the drinking of blood were integral parts of all Voodoo ceremonies. Usually it was the blood of a kid that was used, but often it was that of a black cat”(Tallant, p. 15). The prevalence and inaccuracy of such accounts is something I discuss in the article in HCQ. One thing I have not been able to find, whether truth or fiction, is the use of a black cat face specifically, for good luck.

In at least 20 articles I researched for the article in HCQ, absolute statements are made about the orgiastic parties led by Marie Laveau where the Voodoo worshippers danced around a cauldron filled with frogs and into which snakes and a black cat was tossed. Where did they get their information? Tallant of course, typically the only source cited for these statements. Since the sacred serpent, Li Grande Zombi, is our major Spirit in New Orleans, I hardly doubt anyone was throwing snakes into a cauldron. With such proliferation of unsubstantiated claims, it has become an almost iconic representation of New Orleans Voodoo, albeit completely biased and unfounded. It reminds me of a similar phenomenon that is prevalent on the internet today where people take one source, usually Wikipedia, and regurgitate the information without any critical analysis of the information and without any original authorship that contributes to the body of knowledge. YAWN....

Now the black cat bone is another issue, and it is seemingly supported by local lore and in various blues songs such as the one I have in this post. The truth is, however, the use of black cats in sacrifice didn't start with New Orleans Voodoo or hoodoo. For example, here is a description of the gruesome black cat bone ritual found in the book of St. Cyprian (O Antigo Livro de São Cipriano: Capa de Aço) first published in 1849:


Cook the body of a black cat in boiling water witH white seeds and wood from the willow until the meat is loosened from the bones. Strain the bones in a linen cloth and, in front of the mirror, place the bones, one by one in your mouth, until you find that you have the magic to make you become invisible. Keep the bone with the magic property and, if you want to go somewhere without being seen, place the bone in your mouth."


Do I have to say that a black cat bone, even the "one" alleged special bone will not make you invisible? Admittedly I have not tried it, but I would bet it just ain't so.

During the 17th century, a cat boiled in oil was believed to be excellent for dressing wounds (Russell, 1972). While the mental picture of this is reprehensible, there may have been some (unknown at the time) scientific merit to this, if it was a black cat that was used.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health discovered the gene mutations associated with a black coat in three types of black cats: the domestic cat, jaguar and South American jaguarundi. Apparently, the mutations affect a gene in the same family as one that causes a resistance to HIV in humans. "There is a mutation in humans that knocks this gene out and causes complete resistance to HIV," O'Brien said. So it may be that the same gene responsible for a black coat may also provide resistance to diseases. You can read the whole article here.

In hoodoo and in New Orleans Voodoo, black cats are associated with good luck and have been advertised as such since the late 1930s. They are particularly good luck in sports and games of chance. The tail of a black cat when pointing upward was considered lucky, and if you stroke a cat's tail nine times before playing cards, it is said to give you a winning edge in card games.

There are many references to the various mystical attributes of black cats from numerous cultures - some positive and some negative. Most "superstitions" about black cats are positive, up until the Middle Ages, that is.

I was born and raised in New Orleans and lived there over thirty years, and I never heard of using the face of a black cat for good luck or anything else. That doesn't mean it never was, just that I never heard of it anecdotally. Even the folks I knew who practiced the darker arts never used the skin of black cats. And try as I might, I can't find reference to the use of a black cat face specifically as a good luck curio in any of the folkloric or anthropological literature. I searched the entire database of literature available through the American Anthropological Association, as well as the library at Walden University, through which I have access to hundreds of academic journals. Nothing...not even a hint. If anyone knows of a reference, please post it in the comments section because I would really love to know if I missed something.

However, my question, who skinned the black cat? is jumping the gun. I have to first prove there is indeed a black cat face on Papa Jim's website.

Research Question: Is Papa Jim's Botanica really selling a skinned black cat face on their website?

Or, is it the face of a fox? Let's examine the evidence, beginning with the obvious. Papa Jim's Botanica states: "BLACK CAT FACE... Place in your home or business for good luck, protection from evil."

Of course, you can't believe everything you read or see, so let's check out the photos and and see if we can differentiate the alleged black cat face from a black fox face.

The first aspect of the images to compare is the shape of the faces. I found a couple of photos of black fox faces and compared them against the black cat face found on Papa Jim's Botanica website. To do this, I used Photoshop to remove the backgrounds of both photos and placed them side by side for comparison. And to be completely fair, I am aware of the variations of pelts and there are some fox faces that appear more rounded than pointed, so I did a side by side comparison of those  as well.

Sample 1:



Sample 2:




Next, I took the individual photos and superimposed them on top of each other, taking care to size them to equal sizes without distorting the ratio. Note that in the images, I made the cat face image into a colored graphic in order to clearly see any similarities or differences in the overall shape of the faces.

Sample 1: Cat face superimposed on fox face

 
Sample 2: Cat face superimposed on rounded fox face


Next, I examined the details of the photos, starting with the noses. The alleged cat face appears to have a smaller nose than the fox face, which appears to be a bit square. In addition, in both of the fox photos, the snouts are narrower than the alleged black cat photo, although the fox face with a rounded nose is not as elongated.

Another detail I noticed is the fur. The fur on the fox appears a bit coarser than the fur on the alleged black cat. And the ears...it looks as if the ears of the alleged black cat face are smaller  and more centrally located than the fox ears, which appear to be larger and laying to the sides.

So far, it's not looking good.

That said, my observations are extremely limited in both the photos and the lack of an ability to hold and feel both specimens firsthand. Further, it is difficult to see the details of either picture clearly.

Even if it is not a real black cat, shouldn't the consumer be told? Why would they say it is a black cat if it is not? It's not like they are asking hundreds of dollars for it. Is it worth selling a black cat face for $22.00?

What do you think?

I have chosen not to link to the site because I am already giving them free advertising as the subject of this blog post. No doubt, some freak will read this and want to buy it. That is on them, not me. If you want to see the ad, just google the words "black cat face" and it will come right up (unfortunately).

My first cat was a black cat named Moses. He was so sweet and I really miss him even though it has been over thirty years since he has passed. I can't imagine someone skinning a black cat and saving the face to sell on a website for good luck. That just can't be good karma.







Black Cat Ju Ju at Creole Moon
 

References

Tallant, R. (1946). Voodoo in New Orleans
California Folklore Society (1964). Western Folklore, Vol 23.



Copyright 2010-2012 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.

Friday, December 18, 2009

An Encounter with a Skinwalker in the Heartland


Investigating paranormal phenomenon is something I have enjoyed doing ever since I was a kid. My friends and I were like kids in a candy store in New Orleans because there are a never-ending number of haunted places to explore. One of my favorite investigations we did this year was in the summer in Iowa City. I was contacted by a couple of people who indicated they were in dire need of a consultation. They were clearly freaked out so I set aside some time to meet with them in person. When we met, they proceeded to tell me that they had been confronted by a skinwalker. Knowing my heritage and background in Native American spiritual phenomenon, they felt I would be able to help them.

My first thought was...a skinwalker in Iowa? This is not the most common occurrence in the Midwest, that is for sure. It intrigued me. So I agreed to investigate further.


First, let me give you a little background in skinwalkers so you have an idea of what I am talking about. Speaking about skinwalkers is a sensitive subject and I don't do so lightly. It is not something that is typically discussed outside of native society, and I have attempted to approach the subject with the utmost respect.


A skinwalker, or yee naaldlooshii as they are called in Navajo (meaning "he goes on all fours" or something to that effect), is a person who has the ability to shapeshift into animal form. Specifically, the Navajo believe that a skinwalker is a type of witch who uses their supernatural power to transform into animals for the purpose of cursing someone else, for escaping from enemies, or for getting from one place to the other very quickly. Skinwalkers are feared in Navajo society and are sometimes blamed for any number of maladies and even the deaths of community members.

Although skinwalkers are most frequently seen as coyotes, wolves, owls, foxes, or crows, the yee naaldlooshii is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on the specific ability needed.

It is worthwhile noting that witches and witchcraft are viewed differently in Navajo tradition than in the European tradition. Whereas witches in the European tradition are differentiated as practitioners of black, white, or grey magick, witches in Navajo society are frowned upon because they represent evil, pure and simple. As such, they are greatly feared. The most common type of Navajo witchcraft centers around the ritual called the Witchery Way or Corpse-poison Way. The Witchery Way is believed to have been invented by First Man and First Woman and is accounted for in the Navajo Creation Story.

Skinwalkers usually learn their art from a parent, grandparent, or spouse. Most of the time, they are men. Women are only believed to be witches if they are old and childless. The initiation into the Witchery Way involves murdering a close relative, such as a sibling, and engaging in other cultural taboos such necrophilia, grave-robbing, and incest.

The medicine of Witchery Way centers around powdered corpses, known as "corpse poison". The best sources for this bad medicine are the fingerprints and the skull bones from corpses of children, especially twins. This Corpse Poison is said to look like the corn pollen used in blessing ceremonies; however, it is used to curse and harm, as opposed to bless and sanctify.

The effect of the Witchery Way is illness caused by curse. A person who has ingested corpse poison will immediately display symptoms like fainting, swelling of the tongue, or lockjaw. Sometimes, the victims experience a slow and miserable wasting away from what seems to be a normal disease. When the disease does not respond to conventional medicine or traditional ceremonials, it is believed to have been caused by a witch.

Skinwalkers practice their own ceremonies, spells and rituals. They typically gather somewhere in a secluded spot and are hard to locate by conventional means. They operate in absolute secrecy. They travel to and from their meeting places in shapeshift form, and resume their human form when they return. In what is reminiscent of a Black Mass, the witches' ceremonies parody the good sing as they sit in a circle, naked except for masks, jewelry, and paint like that used in normal ceremonies, and surrounded by their supply of corpse-flesh and ash.

Sometimes skinwalkers are tracked and eliminated. A medicine man and good friend of mine taught me how to identify their footprints. One time, I found a set of footprints near our home on the reservation that seemed to resemble the prints of a witch in transition. There was the heel of a bare human foot and the toes of a large coyote. Sometimes their shadows can be seen wandering around the desert. Other times, they attend community functions in full human form, although it is apparent that they are more than merely human. Skinwalkers are a fascinating, albeit dangerous cultural phenomenon.

Interestingly, it is believed that geese are excellent guardians against skinwalkers.

Now, onto our investigation into an encounter with a skinwalker in the Heartland.

Two women (we will call them Lilly and Mary) called after a close encounter with what they believed to be a skinwalker. They felt the entity had attached itself to them and needed my assistance.

One day they discussed going out at spirit hour as a bit of adventure. At the last minute, they decided to go for a walk on a path in Iowa City near a bean field, a walking path.

According to Lilly:

"So then we smudged at about 2:40 am and this time the smudging felt a little uneasy. My walk was hastened like I had a destination although there wasn’t really a destination it was just a journey. We walked a ways and Mary asked what am I in a hurry for and I said I had no idea. I was trying to consciously slow my pace but it took great effort to do so. We are walking down the path, the moon was very bright, trying to look around as I have never been on this path before. I looked around and saw some strange sculptures that looked like they were made of iron. As we walked down the path I could hear the flowing of the creek, and we walked to a crossroads where there was a bench so we sat down at the bench which is just after the crossroads just listening to the sounds and watching the little creatures, seeing the reflection of the moon in their eyes.


I looked over and saw a little animal about ten feet away, couldn’t tell what it was, couldn’t tell what it was because its movement wasn’t like a squirrel or rabbit and didn’t move like either which was rather odd. The other thing that was odd was that its eyes were black…no reflection like all the other animals. At that time the clouds began to cover the moon. Right before we saw the creature, Mary changed her stance from casual and comfortable to guarded and protective, and Mary turned towards me side ways sort of straddling the bench. I was sitting facing the path as she turned facing me.


So then we see this creature, and Mary said it was a spirit animal and began explaining to me about spirit animals. Not creatures we see every day. Mary saw somebody coming down the path and I looked; I see him way down the path and I turn back and I said that’s weird but then we said “yeah but we’re here” and then I turn to look again and he was about 20 feet away, dressed all in black. He had a black front brimmed hat, and was wearing big huge black or very dark brown sunglasses. His pants made a swishing sound, very baggy jogging pants, with a jacket just below the waist, baggy, zipped closed with a collar, no neck because of a collar, couldn’t see a face, saw skater style shoes like vans, like baggy clothes on a skeleton, flat soles on shoes. Hair coming out of the bottom of the hat curled out from under the hat all around from nape to sides. His hair looked greasy.

Then I watched him as he was pretty damn close and went from 30 feet to 10 feet in a in a split second. Got really terrified. I said “what is that?”  He had been walking in a straight line and once about 10 feet away he came directly towards us with his “non eyes” fixed on us. Changed direction without changing speed, stayed completely perpendicular to the ground while he changed course."

According to the women, Lilly dove into Mary with her head down. Mary was still looking and he came within 6 inches of them and they felt a very cold breeze. His footwork was not altered, actually the footwork was a shuffle. Then, he arcs right back out to the path and going parallel into a shuffle run, his feet were moving like an old man but his feet didn’t lift from the ground and he was moving in lightening speed. He came from the crossroads. He did his speed shuffle away, they watched him go and Mary couldn’t look back, as she was too frightened. Lilly looked back and saw him moving away going away from the crossroads. They got up and left walking back towards the crossroads in the direction of the car.

They kept walking back down the path chanting “Imagine yourself being surrounded by white light, we are being protected, we are surrounded by light.” Lilly is demanding to know what it was, Mary wouldn’t tell her, they stopped at a lilac bush and smelled them for comfort.

They got to the car and Lilly asked again what was that? Mary finally told her what she thought it was, that it was a skinwalker. What is a skinwalker?

They get back to Mary's, felt the need to smudge, still had goosebumps, and had the extreme urge to change clothes immediately because it felt like it was clinging onto everything. Smudging up into clothes and pants trying to warm up because they were freezing cold despite it being a mild spring evening. The entity attached itself to them and the following day is when I got the phone call for help. They wanted to know: How to get rid of this skinwalker?

I asked Mary and Lilly if they would take me to the place where this happened. They agreed but wanted to know what I was going to do to keep them safe.

We agreed to go to the same place at 3:00 in the morning. I told them I was going to petition Papa Legba who is the guardian of the crossroads and ask him for help. It was lightly raining the entire time we were there and the wind was blowing very hard, which made creating a veve out of cornmeal nearly impossible...

After the ritual, my son saw a black figure cross the path. He said he felt uneasy…not scared, just extra aware of a presence. My assistant Barbara also felt a strong presence of Legba in particular.


After the ritual,  we walked back down the path towards the car. I noticed a black figure in the field that looked like maybe a medium sized animal that was watching us as it seemed to be moving. My assistant also saw the figure and I tried to photograph the figure but nothing showed up. We couldn’t see its eyes. When I tried to photograph the figure all I got was this:




I couldn’t capture the black figure, but then this appeared:



My assistant asked Ogun who is her guardian loa (spirit) if we could go closer and see it. I have to admit I wanted to try to get a closer shot, but then my camera died. So we got our answer. Damn…then we left.

This is the basic story which does not really capture the intensity of the emotions and experiences of the people involved.

There is a lot to be said about skinwalkers. I was not convinced that it was a skinwalker because the people involved were not Navajo, although Mary was adopted and taught the way of the sacred pipe which is one of the sacred rites of the Lakota, and Lilly is of Cherokee ancestry. My son is half Navajo, I am Creole (Spanish, French and Indian) and was married to a full blooded Navajo, lived and worked in Gallup New Mexico and learned a lot about their religion and spirituality. That is why I wanted to see if I could draw the spirit back out and see for myself. The last spirit I could capture on film that evening was an orb (no, it is not the moon):








While in New Mexico, I learned a lot about skinwalkers from several medicine people. They usually wear animal skins and can morph into the skin of the animal it is wearing, often they are just shadows. Only once did I ever see a skinwalker as a man dressed in black similar to what Mary and Lilly described. It is extremely rare to see which is one reason why this case is so intriguing. Skinwalkers are not born skinwalkers. They are considered pratictitioners of witchcraft and taught the skill of skinwalking.

So, no skinwalkers that night which didn't really surprise me. But there was plenty of other cool spiritual phenomenon going on and the experience was well worth the while. I prescribed some spiritual baths for the two women and prayed prayers of protection over them. I am happy to report that they immediately felt released from the negative energy that had attached itself to them once these rituals were performed.


Image credits

Beast of Gévaudan,, 1764 18th-Century depiction of an inordinately woolly-fleeced Beast - a veritable wolf in sheep's clothing! (public domain)

All other photos copyright Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide.