Appalachian Folk Magic: All About Stump Water

The magic practiced in the backwoods of Appalachia for the past few hundred years has been, by necessity, one that used what the practitioner had to hand. Before we had the internet, we had no way of getting our hands on specific crystals or herbs laid out in some ancient European grimoire. Outside of maybe Asheville, and even then prior to maybe the 1990’s, there were no such things as a “local witchy shop.”

In my childhood in the mid- ’70’s, even in tourist destinations like Waynesville and Cherokee, NC (and Gods how we locals hated those tourists, even though we desperately needed their money) even regular produce was very local and seasonal and groceries were limited. What I’m trying to say is, there was no such thing as sage to burn. And this is utopia compared to what someone putting together a working even 50 years earlier in the 1920’s would have been able to access.

Depression era southern Appalachia had railroads and outside contact. That outside contact had literally been won 50 years prior with the blood and bones of the people who cut through the mountains in the 1880’s. Prior to that, much of this area was accessible only via horseback or on foot – or even not at all.

The Mountain Farm Museum near Cherokee, NC preserves real buildings and a small working farm such as European settlers lived in for several hundred years. Farms such as these were often very isolated and difficult to access.

For most of human history, there have been parts of these mountains that were so thickly overgrown and steep that even the Native tribes had rarely if ever gone in, and certainly European settlers had never set foot inside. Many European settlers, either in semi-peace with the Tsalagi (Cherokee) people (or after their expulsion) built homesteads in areas that were simply unreachable from the outside. For many, that was the goal.

So, when you’re on a mountaintop, cut off from the rest of the world, and you need to do a working, you use what you’ve got.

What You Have > What You Don’t

Every month, I see listings on Facebook for moonwater. Especially when there’s an unusual moon of any kind – an eclipse or any “supermoon.” And hey, I’m not knocking that – there is most certainly a charge available to be infused by those events. I don’t personally get why anyone who understands that charge wouldn’t just put their own jar of water outside instead of paying someone else to, but yannow… to each their own. Maybe people forget and need charged water, I dunno.

The point is, What you have is much more powerful than what you don’t. And the folks who used what they had on hand on the tops of those isolated mountains worked some pretty powerful magic.

One of the things they used a lot was stump water.

What Is Stump Water?

The basic answer is that stump water is rainwater sitting in a tree stump.

A Nice Hollow Spot To Find Stump Water

But, like so much of Appalachian culture, there’s a whole lot more to it than the simple explanation gives away. First of all, rainwater is exceedingly magical. If you’ve never felt the utter joy of playing in the summer rain, are you even a witch? Beyond that, rain is a combination of two elements: Water and Air. It’s water that has ridden the skies, traveled over vast distances and flown through the air to land back on earth.

Except in this case, before it reaches its destination it’s caught by our friend the tree stump. It’s betwixt and between, neither in the sky nor on the ground. It’s liminal.

The tree stump may no longer have it’s branches, but chances are it still has roots, running deep into the ground. Which means our rainwater is now infused with a third element: Earth. Are you starting to see the layers build here? There’s more.

Our friend the tree stump isn’t just a dead piece of wood sticking out of the ground. Scientists have discovered that in forests, tree roots are interconnected. When a tree is cut or struck by lightning or breaks off for whatever reason, the surrounding trees share water and resources. They keep it alive.

All we need is some rain

Like the Native Americans whose knowledge contributed so much to Appalachian folk magic, I am an animist to the core. It is the spirit of the tree that is supposed to infuse stump water with it’s power. But to me, that spirit is one of many. There’s the spirit of the water itself. The spirits of the clouds the water rode on, of the rivers or lakes or streams it flowed in before it was drawn up into those clouds. Each and every one of these spirits will have touched this stump water. Will have made each and every iteration of stump water, from each and every different rainfall on each and every different stump in each and every different forest a unique entity. With a unique personality that might lend itself better to some workings than others.

How To Collect Stump Water

So there’s been a good rain, and you know where there’s a good stump that’s likely to collect water. By the way, a full tree with a hollow in the trunk works, too. It doesn’t have to be broke off to work. You do, however, want to pay attention to what kind of tree you’re collecting from. It adds to the personality of your stump water – water from an oak is gonna be different from water you get from a pine.

Most Appalachian Granny Witches used their dishrags in a lot of magic workings – this is a piece of cloth they used all the time for mundane work, so it would be full of their energy. And that’s how you collect stump water, by sopping it up with a cloth and wringing it out into your bowl or jar.

There are, of course, certain ways to go about the procedure and these can vary. Some say you need to approach the stump backwards. A youtuber I particularly enjoy once knew a family that would only collect stump water on Thursdays. Author Jake Richards has said he was taught storing it in a jar killed the water and it wouldn’t work. I, like him, have heard that you’re not to speak to anyone from the time you leave home to collect your water until you return.

A stump with moss, which adds another element to your stump water

In the book Tom Sawyer Mark Twain has Tom explain that to use stump water (or the version known as spunk water, which today means it came from a rotten stump) to cure warts required a detailed ritual. At the stroke of midnight, you must back up to the stump, place your hand with the warts in the water and say, “Barley-corn, barley-corn, injun-meal shorts, spunk-water, spunk-waterswaller these warts.” After this take eleven steps forward with your eyes closed, turn around three times, and then walk home without speaking.

What Stump Water Is Good For

Stump water’s good for pretty much anything.

As mentioned, it’s supposed to be good for getting rid of warts. It’s also supposed to wash away freckles, although not sure why you’d want to, and pimples and blackheads. In general it’s a healing and luck-giving agent used in many different kinds of medicine. It’s often been added to herbal infusions as a means of increasing potency.

In the Swimmer Manuscript (a collection of sacred Cherokee formulas and medicinal prescriptions) we hear of a Cherokee Medicine Man. “Spencer Bird, an old medicine man, now dead, used to rely on the sole purifying power of water. The informant who told me this vaguely hinted at teh probability of the water being some ‘special water,’ such as that scooped out of a stump (‘stump water’)…”

Stump water is also known to bring good luck. One of the many rituals around newborn babies in the mountains included never washing their heads with “normal” water the first time lest they go bald early. Washing with stump water not only prevents this but ensures a lifetime of good luck.

In magical workings, stump water amplifies the power of your spell. It’s also known to amplify the power of good luck charms when they’re soaked in it.

As you can see, stump water is powerful stuff. It may be a bit trickier to get than sticking a jar outside on a full moon night, but it’s definitely worth the effort. So go find yourself a stump and soak some up!

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