Book Review: Asfidity & Mad-Stones a Further Ramble through Hillfolks’ Hoodoo
H. Byron Ballard’s second ‘little book’ Asfidity & Mad-Stones is a mighty thing. There is no fluff here. In its 200 pages, every sentence is a bite of wisdom, every chapter an open doorway into exploring a fading way of life. This Further Ramble into Hillfolks’ Hoodoo feels to me like a long wander through the mountains with a woman whose wisdom is as wide as a valley and as deep as a holler; every step and every word shared an intentional passing on of that knowledge.
The author’s roots in Appalachia are “deep and twisty,” going back generations. Growing up in a cove in the far reaches of a county in western North Carolina, she offers a perspective that is rarely found in the growing popularity of hoodoo and folk magic. Byron’s tales of gardening and exploring, of haints and land spirits, of signs and omens from a lifetime of having her feet in the same place supported by generations before her, lends an undeniable authenticity to her writing.
Byron begins our journey in a laurel hell; a grove of Mountain Laurel that has grown scraggly and tangled. A laurel hell appears mysterious and inviting but it is “deceptively beautiful and potentially dangerous,” though navigable if you “know its ways and keep your wits about you.” Byron guides you skillfully through the ways of Appalachian folk magic and hoodoo until you too no longer fear the beauty of it.
Chapter One grounds us into where we all must begin – the land beneath our own feet. Whether you, like Byron, have roots in the place where you live or are a member of our very mobile culture, and whether you live in the country or the city, you can still find ways to connect with the land where you are. Byron reminds us how to do this, and entreats us to “treat the land like a new lover” and truly come into an understanding and relationship with the soil, the water, the wind, the history, and the lore.
In the following chapters the author discusses the powers of observation, common and uncommon sense, the liminality of time, energy work, and working with Ancestors and land spirits while continuing to provide us with spells and techniques to try in our growing practice. Her message – that through regular practice these skills can be attained by most anyone – is woven throughout the book.
Hillfolks’ Hoodoo is a no nonsense, incredibly simple yet indescribably profound approach to magic and connecting with that which is Seen and Unseen in our world. It is simple because this stuff IS simple, though not always easy. It is accessible by us all if we just set aside our fretting and our laziness and get to it. What it is not is ‘dumb’ or ‘backwards’ and if you have any prejudices about the peoples of Appalachia, you would do right by yourself and them if you set those aside too. This book will prove to you the deep wisdom and strength to be found in those hills.
It will also provide you with lessons in history and legend. Throughout the book are many anecdotes, quotes, and references to an older way of life – a way of life that most certainly was not simple or easy. Very special gems are left for us between each chapter – even more receipts (a traditional word for ‘recipes’) and techniques that feel like extra little gifts from an already overflowing basket.
Witches and rootworkers love our tools, and there is a chapter dedicated to the work-basket for Appalachian folk magic. From tools (and I do mean literal tools – this is a very down-to-the-earth practice, yeah?) to dirts, dusts, waters, and stones there are things here which may surprise you, presented for use in a way that is unique to Appalachia.
Another of the gifts that Byron offers to us through her decades of experience is the concept of The Five Needs. Anyone who works with their community in a clergy or practitioner role can probably relate to this distillation of the most common motivations for folks who reach out to us for help. Broken down into five categories, Byron offers more direct and effective advice for addressing these concerns.
Byron’s sensible and magical advice continues as she discusses growing, wildcrafting, and using herbs even within the city. But I found her discussion of the old-timey medicine chest to be particularly delightful. Chock-full of anecdotes and receipts, this is a wonderful glimpse into the history of healing in Appalachian culture while also providing current uses for items which are easily and economically accessible.
Toward the end of our ramble, after much time and distance spent together, Byron brings our attention to a discussion of hexes. Referring to this type of magic as banework, she breaks it down into a helpful system of levels. Byron makes a strong case for learning the history, techniques and reasoning behind this work, and for a reassessment of the common understanding of karma and the three-fold law, even if you decide banework is not for you. She proposes that banework is simply another form of healing, though certainly a more extreme form, likened to the cauterizing of a wound or the amputation of a diseased limb. This work should be approached objectively after full and careful consideration, and no one should guilt you into or out of doing the work if you decide it is appropriate.
Hexwork has long been a tool of the oppressed, being used to “affect their betters and abusers for centuries.” When the disenfranchised are refused access to justice, to resources, to the necessary things of life to ensure health and happiness, what options are there left to us? Magic, to include the use of banes, is power that is accessible to us, that we can hold on to when all else has been stripped away. I say it is well time to reclaim it.
If you are looking for a guide on tuning in to the natural world, working with the plants that grow around you, connecting with spirits and Ancestors, and sharpening your magic skills through regular use, this is it. It is a joy to read and a wealth of research and information. Byron is instructive without being preachy, poetic without being self-important. While more advanced than her first book Staubs and Ditchwater, I think Asfidity & Mad-Stones is appropriate for those just starting on their path as well as those who are looking to enhance their current practices, and for anyone who would enjoy a friendly voice filled with wisdom and deep connection to the heart of the mountains.
H. Byron Ballard, BA, MFA is a ritualist, teacher, speaker, and writer. She has been a featured speaker at national and international conferences and her writing has appeared widely in print and electronic media. She serves as elder priestess at Mother Grove Goddess Temple. Asfidity & Mad-Stones: A Further Ramble through Hillfolks’ Hoodoo may be purchased directly from her website www.myvillagewitch.com or through her local independent retailers Malaprops or Raven and Crone.
Syren Nagakyrie is a Goddess-centered Polytheist Witch and Priestess, a feminist, herbalist, writer, and radical bridger of worlds. Her heart sings for the sea while her body yearns for the forest; her spirit is that of the Wandering Hermit. She also blogs at syrenofminds.wordpress.com