Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Feather Pillows and Witch Wreaths

I own two feather pillows. Recently I was finding that both had grown resistant to all efforts to fluff them. It was obviously time to buy new ones after more than 10 years.

It occurred to me that if I pulled the stuffing out from one and used it to refill the other, I'd only have to buy one new pillow instead of two. I'd read enough ancient household management guides that I knew how to replace feather filling, so I went for it.

When I cut open the pillows, I found one of them had developed a strange rope-like quality to many of the feathers. They'd grown matted and stuck together in many places.


Lafcadio Hearn in his "New Orleans Superstitions" article of 1886 wrote:

It is believed that by secret spells a "Voudoo" can cause some monstrous kind of bird or nondescript animal to shape itself into being out of the pillow feathers--like the tupilek of the Esquimau iliseenek (witchcraft.) It grows very slowly, and by night only; but when completely formed, the person who has been using the pillow dies. Another practice of pillow witchcraft consists in tearing a living bird asunder--usually a cock--and putting portions of the wings into the pillow. A third form of the black-art is confined to putting certain charms or fetiches--consisting of bones, hair, feathers, rags, strings, or some fantastic combination of these and other trifling objects--into any sort of a pillow used by the party whom it is desired to injure. The pure Africanism of this practice needs no comment. Any exact idea concerning the use of each particular kind of charm I have not been able to discover; and I doubt whether those who practise such fetichism know the original African beliefs connected with it. Some say that putting grains of corn into a child's pillow "prevents it from growing any more"; others declare that a bit of cloth in a grown person's pillow will cause wasting sickness; but different parties questioned by me gave each a different signification to the use of similar charms. Putting an open pair of scissors under the pillow before going to bed is supposed to insure a pleasant sleep in spite of fetiches; but the surest way to provide against being "hoodooed," as American residents call it, is to open one's pillow from time to time. If any charms are found, they must be first sprinkled with salt, then burned. A Spanish resident told me that her eldest daughter had been unable to sleep for weeks, owing to a fetich that had been put into her pillow by a spiteful colored domestic. After the object had been duly exorcised and burned, all the young lady's restlessness departed. A friend of mine living in one of the country parishes once found a tow string in his pillow, into the fibers of which a great number of feather stems had either been introduced or had introduced themselves. He wished to retain it as a curiosity, but no sooner did he exhibit it to some acquaintance than it was denounced as a Voudoo "trick," and my friend was actually compelled to burn it in the presence of witnesses. Everybody knows or ought to know that feathers in pillows have a natural tendency to cling and form clots or lumps of more or less curious form, but the discovery of these in some New Orleans households is enough to create a panic. They are viewed as incipient Voudoo tupileks. The sign of the cross is made over them by Catholics, and they are promptly committed to the flames.

Despite the claims of "pure Africanism" in this belief, it's actually a superstition of European origin. (Take into consideration that the feather pillow is not an African sleeping tradition.) Harry M. Hyatt collected a story about one from an informant he noted as being German -- the tale involved a little girl who became ill and couldn't seem to be diagnosed. The informant suggested the girl's pillow should be opened, and indeed a wreath of feathers was found inside. The wreath was burned in the oven, and like in many accounts of burning hex-bringing items, it fizzled and popped as it was consumed by the flames. Immediately after the burning, a neighbor lady knocked on the door asking to borrow some butter, claiming that her hands were burning and she needed it for an ointment. This was taken by the household as proof that the neighbor had been the culprit.

Specimens of these witches wreaths exist in museums. They are sometimes also called Angel's Crowns of Death Crowns as those who weren't practitioners of magic viewed them merely as a bad omen for the death of a loved one rather than evidence of a witch's trick. A 1898 Cincinnati Inquirer article gives some further accounts:

A resident of Pittsburg, who had been ill for several years, died in July, 1897. During his last illness, extending over several months, he would frequently throw his pillow away, saying: “There is something in that pillow that hurts my head.” His wife said that this was impossible, as she had gathered the feathers and made the pillow herself a few years ago. Some days after her husband’s death the widow claimed that something seemed to say to her, “Look at the pillow.” Upon opening the pillow she found this object within it. When questioned closely she declared that the sewing was hers, and that it showed no signs of having been tampered with. The neighbors believe in the woman’s truthfulness. Her husband had been an old soldier. He frequently took a cup of coffee at the house of Mrs. S., and was invariably more ill after doing so. Mrs. S. died a short time before he did. The patient was attended by Dr. George B. Kline and the facts above given are furnished by him. 
Dr. Kline writes that a similar wreath was found in the pillow of a six-year-old child, who died of the same disease and about the same time as the above mentioned patient. This was burned by the witch doctor without Dr. Kline seeing it, but he is informed that it was precisely like this one. By inquiry, Dr. Kline learned of four or five other families who were said to have found witch wreaths in their pillows, and who ascribed to their presence cases of illness in their families. 
The same notion is reported among the negroes in New Orleans, where it is said that among the many methods of working upon their superstitious fears was the insertion by apparently supernatural means of balls of feathers into pillows and beds. An observer declares: “I myself have examined these creations, and marveled at the skill displayed in their manufacture. The closest scrutiny fails to discover rip or newly sewed seam in bed or pillow tick, and yet the balls were found buried in the mattresses, and among the soft features of pillows. They were made of soft, highly colored feathers, brilliant and gaudy, scarlet and gold, bright blue and vivid green, and were about the size and shape of an orange.” It appears that a belief in the evil effects of witch wreaths is extremely common in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey among the descendants of German settlers, and it used to be customary to put a Bible under the pillow to prevent their forming. 

 Like Hearn reassured, it is natural for pillow-feathers to clump and form shapes, but wreaths or balls are viewed as an especially bad omen. I didn't find any formed wreaths in my pillow -- but nevertheless, before sewing it back up, I put in a few pinches of Jinx Killer powder just in case.

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