The deep roots of witchcraft in Appalachia

The term “witchcraft” appears to render many people uneasy when talking about it by today's standards. What may come to mind for them are the Salem Witch Trials, eating toads, or turning children into cats as pop-culture has led us to believe.

In reality, the art of folklore and so-called “granny magic” that has been practiced by many Appalachians, both intentionally and unintentionally, are the product of generations of traditions that have been passed on to them by their ancestors.

H. Byron Ballard wears many hats, including that of senior priestess and co-founder of Mother Grove Goddess Temple in Asheville, North Carolina. Established in 2008, the temple provides a place for people of all faiths to come together to celebrate femininity and Mother Earth. The temple hosts events for all holy days in the Wiccan calendar and sponsors several programs that help aid those in need.

“I like to tell people that the single most important job that a Wiccan priestess has is to make sure that no candle wax gets on the carpet or floor of the hall that you rented to do a ritual in,” said Ballard. “When everybody else is gone, she’ll be on the floor scraping wax up with her thumbnail.”

While in college at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, Ballard congregated with a group of women who began looking into how spirituality could be used in service to equalizing women. It was then that she discovered the practices of Wicca, and she adopted the faith soon after.

Today, she identifies with animism, believing that all things on Earth, from trees and dirt to animals and humans, have a soul and are connected to each other because of that. 

“It's kind of like being baptized because once you are a Wiccan, you are always a Wiccan,” said Ballard. “The older I get the simpler my spirituality gets, and now I am really an animist. I believe that the whole world is ensouled, and that's what my book that is coming out in August is about.”

Ballard grew up surrounded by mysticism and practical remedies to everyday ailments.

Through a whole line in her family tree going back to at least six generations, Ballard recounts the women having special gifts shortly after hitting puberty. The family openly referred to themselves and their practices as “witchery.” Some could ‘witch’ a wart off of a person, some could ‘blow the fire’ out of a burn, while others could see and communicate with spirits. For Ballard and her grandmother, they both received the gift of prophetic dreaming. 

Ballard was not prevented from going to church as a child, but after her father had a falling out with their Methodist minister, the family never found another church to call home. Ballard refers to her childhood as ‘unchurched.’ Though she did attend services with various neighbors and relatives, she was never baptized as a Christian.

“As I was looking into other religions, I began to wonder why God and Jesus were considered real, but all of those other deities were just myths,” said Ballard.

Though witchcraft and wiccanism seem to be a taboo ideology to many people, Ballard states that since they first came out with their faith in their area in the 1990s, most of the people have decided to leave them alone and not be bothered by their faith and rituals. 

“It's a truism I think about mountain people,” said Ballard. “There are not many left in Asheville, but mountain people are content to just leave you alone as long as you return the favor.”

Asheville has grown in its urban population over the past decade and has become a melting pot of people of all different faiths and belief practices. Because of this, seeing a Wiccan temple directly across the street from the First Baptist Church is not enough to make most locals bat an eye.

The goddess temple received a small amount of pushback when it was first starting out, not from Christian denominations, but from people within the Pagan community who wanted to include the masculine god deities as well.

“We only have two rules at Mother Grove,” Ballard said. “No hierarchy, and no boy gods.”

Mother Grove welcomes many participants, both male and female, who like to think of the goddesses as their mothers or grandmothers. Ballard says that femininity has a great appeal to most people, and that all people from all faiths are welcome to worship at the temple.  

Ballard recounts several ministers within the protestant Christian community offering advice and help when plans for the goddess temple were first announced in 2008. The leaders of the other faiths expressed their concern for her building a temple, not because they did not want her to build it, but because buildings were expensive to maintain. One Baptist pastor offered to set up a meeting with one of his contacts who could provide insurance for the building of the temple. 

“There was a level of acceptance from those members of my interfaith community that I did not have from members of the pagan community,” said Ballard.

Ballard has authored five books on her experience with witchcraft and is working on a sixth one that is set to be completed in August 2021. 

“I’ve been writing for what feels like my whole life,” said Ballard. “I wrote stories when I was a kid, and then became a playwright when I was in graduate school and I've written I don't know how many plays. I switched over to non-fiction after that.”

Ballard’s books pay homage to her religious culture, as well as her Appalachian roots.

For more information about Ballard please visit her website, MyVillageWitch.

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