Folk magic is more of a magical tradition than a school of scholarly research being as old as the hills, some say as old as time itself. It is as deeply ingrained to the psyche of the country folk as the changing of the seasons and has been passed down from father to son and mother to daughter for countless generations.
There are two main branches to folk magic: spirit recruitment and animal charming, each of these is discussed separately.
The world is full of spirits of many kinds. They live in the trees, the rivers, the fields, the rocks, and even in the very earth itself. A few are powerful demons to be feared or semi-divine entities who demand worship, but most are rather benign and quite harmless. It is to these that spirit recruitment is directed.
The purpose of spirit recruitment is, as its name suggests, recruiting minor spirits to aid the farmer or his household. This is not the domineering control imposed by wizards and sorcerers, nor is it the fawning supplication advocated by priests and holy men. Instead it is a kind of trade, an agreement between equals, by where the spirit grants its aid in return for some service or minor sacrifice.
By far the most common of these are the hearth spirits, the grain spirits, and the guardian spirits, although other types certainly exist.
So called because they like to live in the lintel over the hearth, hearth spirits perform a variety of minor services for the household. The exact services vary from spirit to spirit but usually include things like guiding the smoke up through the chimney or smoke hole, extinguishing any embers that escape the fireplace, and gently nudging small children away from the flames.
In return for such service the hearth spirits require regular sacrifice in the form of a burnt offering. It is therefore traditional to throw a cake, biscuit, or similar item on the fire whenever the family sits down to a meal.
The grain spirits are the spirits of corn, wheat, and barley, or any other crop the farmer wishes to sow for that matter. Each crop has its own spirit without which the seed cannot germinate and the crop cannot grow. Thus, in order to ensure a successful harvest the farmer must have the appropriate grain spirit living in his fields.
However, grain spirits are delicate things and cannot survive the winter cold. Therefore the stalks of the last sheaf harvested from a field are woven into a little box-like container known as a Corn Dolly, and this is buried in a sheltered corner. Here the spirit will sleep, protected from the frost and snow of winter, ready to emerge just in time for the spring planting.
These highly territorial spirits like to live inside pieces of iron. The shape of the iron is meaningless to them but the size is not, if the piece is too small the spirit will not be comfortable and will leave. As it happens a horseshoe is just about the right size, and this why people often hang old horseshoes on their front doors. It is also most likely the reason horseshoes are believed to be lucky.
Because these spirits are so territorial they make extremely good spiritual watchdogs. Thus they are commonly used to guard the house from malevolent or unwanted supernatural entities, such as the demons of ill health or the imps of misfortune.
Some versions can also attack more corporeal intruders, such as thieves. However, such spirits might attack anybody they do not know so it is necessary to “train” them to recognise household members. This is believed to be the source of such customs as carrying your bride over the threshold and crossing a new born baby’s palm with silver, both of which are to do with inviting a new member into the household.
How much of this is magic, how much is animal training techniques, and how much is simply an understanding of animal behaviour is not certain, but the fact remains that country folk know how to influence (if only to a limited degree) the behaviour the creatures around them.
The exact procedure varies dramatically from place to place, and even more so depending on the animal being charmed, there are however some common elements.
Typically a little food, appropriate for the animal in question, is required which is either laid out as bait or held in the hand whilst approaching the animal in a non-threatening manner. This continues until contact is made or, as is more often the case, the animal runs away.
Once contact has thus been made, the animal is encouraged to act as required by the caster. It is this stage that varies most, being dependent on a variety of factors such as the animal involved and the behaviour the caster wants to instil as well as local tradition and even the casters’ experience and personal prejudices. In fact some of the best practitioners claim that there is no “correct” way of doing this and that each case is different - you simply have to learn how to “wing it”.
It is important to note that no direct control or domination of the animal is taking place here, nor can an animal be forced to act in any manner contrary to its own nature. However if you have a clear idea of what you want and it is within the normal behaviour pattern for the animal the results can be astounding.
Mostly there are two main uses for the technique: controlling livestock (e.g. charm the dominant ewe into the fold and the whole flock will follow) or hunting small game for the pot (e.g. charming a rabbit close enough to catch it).
However some communities have developed unusual and imaginative applications, such as the lowlanders who encourage pregnant wildcats to raise their kittens near the grain store or upland farmers who charm hawks or kites to nest near their fields. In both cases this farmer gains some measure of pest control.