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Spiritual Practices in the Southern Gothic Oracle

The Southern Gothic Oracle is the first oracle deck to be based solely on the folklore and spiritual practices unique to the American South. Looking at the cards at face value, and seeing things like the Mason Jar and the Horseshoe, you might think it’s just a quirky collection of iconic Southern objects, but behind each of those images is an inspiration derived from real traditions and beliefs.

The expanse of cultural tradition in this region is vast, and everybody has their own way of doing things. My friend Tony Kail, author of Stories of Rootworkers & Hoodoo in the Mid-South (American Heritage), says it best, that even within the context of Hoodoo alone, there’s a great deal of diversity. “Memphis Hoodoo and Appalachian Hoodoo are as different from each other as they are different from Carolina Hoodoo, etc.”

In this collection you will encounter symbolism from the following spiritual traditions:

  • Celtic Pagan beliefs 
  • Hoodoo and Conjure 
  • Gullah and the Root
  • Ozark remedies and folklore
  • Appalachian witchcraft
  • Spiritualism and esoteric beliefs
  • Uniquely regional Christian mythology

 

On each card guide, I have indicated whenever possible the spiritual tradition from which the object’s symbolism is based. If none are mentioned, then the reader may deduce that this is a shared symbol among many belief systems.

I decided to limit the scope of the belief systems in this Oracle deck to those in my own radius; namely, the colonial and African traditions of the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, with a pinch of Ozark tradition. There are significant spiritual traditions from this region that have been omitted. For example, many readers might associate Louisiana’s Creole or Voodoo references with Southern Gothic, but these spiritual traditions are not in my wheelhouse, and besides—New Orleans has enough material to be studied quite on its own. 

Another large cultural omission are those of the native tribal traditions and beliefs that pervade this land, as it originally belonged to the Chikasha (Chickasaw), O-ga-xpa (Quapaw), Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee), Myskoke (Creek) and so many other nations, whose boundaries overlapped and changed over the centuries before they were forcibly removed by colonists. When their traditions appear in this work, it is because they merged with (or were adopted by) the colonial or enslaved Southerners during  the many decades that they co-habited the area. In the words of one Appalachian hedge witch, southern magic is a three-legged stool, made up of European, African and Native traditions, although within those three “legs” are hundreds of wisdom sources. Their overlaps of knowledge were an inevitable facet of survival in the New World.

Let’s take these one at a time for a peek into where these beliefs originate.

Celtic Pagan beliefs The southeast has been inhabited by colonists since well before the Revolutionary War. Although the Spaniards came first from Europe, the majority of the long-term settlers were of English and Scots-Irish descent, so if you’ve ever noticed the remarkable similarity between Irish drinking ballads and Kentucky bluegrass with fiddles, that’s why. The white folks in  this  area, though mostly quitet Christian, have always held on to old pagan beliefs like ghosts on All Souls’ night, hell hounds in the cemetery, lucky horseshoes, and so much more.

Hoodoo/Conjure. Many people mistake Hoodoo as another way of saying Voodoo. Hoodoo is a uniquely American spiritual practice that has its basis in various West African religions, and evolved during the centuries of slavery in the United States. Also known as Conjure, the rich African-American traditions of Hoodoo share many aspects with pagan European beliefs, because of their shared focus on divination and spell work. Voudoun/Voodoo refers to the Afro-Haitian religion of that name, whereas Hoodoo is a looser set of individual practices.

Gullah/The Root. Along the coastal South, particularly in South Carolina, the Gullah-Geechee people are descendants of enslaved African people whose relative isolation created the opportunity for their ancestral spiritual traditions to thrive and persist, despite all the rolling changes of American history all around them. Some sources say that the word Gullah comes from “Angola,” and that most Gullah people can trace their lineage back for many, many generations. Their version of Hoodoo practice is called The Root, and involves many rich traditions related to health, wealth, birth, death, and love.

Ozark Remedies and Folklore. The Ozarks are a mountain range that expands through Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. In the 19th century and before, the absolute lack of bridges across the mighty Mississippi River meant that whites and Blacks who found their way across this great waterway were “out west,” in “Indian country.” It should surprise no one that certain herbal or root-based remedies practiced by country folks in the Ozarks made use of the same plants as those from the traditions of the Native nations. This is because ideas are shared—especially knowledge that can lead to healing or safety, when survival is utmost on one’s mind. 

Appalachian Witchcraft. Like the Ozark people, the Appalachian people were (and remain) “hillfolk.” Being up in the mountains, far from city services and comforts, leads to the kind of cultural isolation that builds deep traditions. Although the folks of Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and northern Alabama are not about to call themselves witches, I’m appropriating that term here to refer to the kind of hexes and spells that the rest of us see in that context. It is a “white witchcraft,” that is, it’s not meant for evil-doing or devil worship. Rather, it’s a series of practices that are fairly supernatural in nature, meant to make life in the hills safer and more comfortable.

Spiritualism and Esoteric. This is a catch-all category referring not just to ghost-hunting and seances and other spirit work, but also to modern forms of witchcraft practices, botanical healing, and mysticism. Go to a town like Asheville, North Carolina, or Pensacola, Florida, and you’ll find as many yoga studios, metaphysical shops, and psychic services as you will churches. And that’s a lot. Southerners have a need to believe in things, and those faiths overlap quite generously.

Uniquely regional Christian Mythology. I do not mean to offend any Christian readers with the word “mythology,” because by using that word I am not meaning to suggest “fairy tales” or untruths. I use that term to define the idea of stories passed down orally over time, which do not necessarily have a source in Scripture or official church teachings. A good example of this might be the legend of the dogwood tree, which I included in the deck. Dogwood blossoms, it is said, have the four cuts in their petals because God wanted to remind us of Christ’s wounds. Dogwood trees, it is said, never grow tall anymore because after the Romans used that wood to crucify Jesus, the tree was cursed never to be large enough to crucify again. Whether you believe this legend or not, it is still a myth.

There are readers who may take offense at seeing Christian beliefs mixed in quite equally with pagan spiritual practices. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, contrary to more modern branches of Christian faith, believe that the Bible is the literal word of God and that there is no path to salvation except through belief in Jesus. If this applies to you, I ask that you appreciate the spirit and intention of this card deck, in that it is meant to honor a cross-section of regional beliefs, and to inspire a diverse group of readers in different ways.

Other readers may be put off because elements of Christianity have been included here at all, since so many practitioners of cartomancy (divintaiton through the use of cards) find the traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs anathema to more individual paths toward self-discovery. In the South, however, it is rare to find a folk practitioner who doesn’t in some way rely on aspects of Christianity to fuel their magical practices. 

The reason I have included the Christian symbols of the guardian angel, the Psalm book, and the blessed child (cherub) in this deck is that it’s important to reflect the fullest picture of spiritual activity in the South, also known as the Bible Belt. The undercurrents of Christian belief are everywhere in this region. The Southern religious tradition is grounded in the concept of redemption. It is a highly performative religion of sin and salvation, with a focus on being spiritually “cleansed” through the Spirit… “washed white as snow,” and born again. Look for messages about spiritual cleansing throughout the cards; it is an ever-present concept in Southern folklore.

Als, in nearly all of the Southern folk traditions from Hoodoo to Appalachian witchcraft, the Bible is in fact used as a magical object. Bible verses are cited as spells to induce healing, to ward off evil spirits, and to break hexes. Again, finding your own spiritual frequency is encouraged. If you are not one to necessarily believe in guardian angels, please bring your own life context to the reading, and think instead of your own spirit guides, your own mentors here on earth, or perhaps of your ancestors. Remember, nothing in this collection is ever meant to offend; these symbols are presented in the spirit of sharing knowledge and inspiration.

Many people, faiths and belief systems are included here, and all are welcome. Use these cards in a way that gives you the most joy, and the deepest insight, into your own psyche. Your path is your own, and I am honored that these images will be there for you on your journey.