Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Magic from rags

This photo of Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Around the world, people have traditionally used rags, small flags, torn strips of clothing and other bits of cloth to anchor and reinforce their prayers and magical petitions. In this post we'll look at some of these traditions and how we can use cloths in our own magical working.

Holy Places

When people make a pilgrimage to a sacred site to make a petition to the resident deity, saint or spirit, they often leave behind a token to mark their visit and as an offering. In some places these will be statues, small ex voto charms, written petitions or even stones, but at many holy places around the world, visitors leave strips of cloth. This practice is found among cultures as diverse as Native American, Celtic, Tibetan and Japanese. Usually the cloth is more than just a marker to say "I was here" - it embodies a prayer and leaves it at the site to continue its work long after the petitioner has returned home.

Photo taken in Bhutan by Jean-Marie Hullot,  via Wikimedia Commons
In some places, like the Himalayas, this is made more explicit by using small flags with specific prayers printed on the cloth. The idea is that, as long as the prayer flag continues to flutter, the winds will carry the prayer to the gods. In Ireland and other Celtic countries, visitors to holy wells will often dip a cloth into the water as they make their prayer (formerly to local gods, goddesses or water spirits, now usually to saints) and tie it to the branch of a nearby bush. Often this bush is a hawthorn, one of the sacred trees of the ancient Celts. The Scots and Irish call these rags "clooties" (from the Gaelic for "cloth") and the wells at which they are left are known as "clootie wells". Sometimes the well is long gone, its place now marked only by the continuing presence of a "clootie tree" still being visited by the local people to convey prayers and wishes to the spirits.

You can have a clootie tree in your own yard, and tie strips of fabric to it as you make a wish or speak a charm. Use lightweight cotton or other natural fabric, so the clooties will decay quickly. You can also hang charms, papers and other small objects from the branches along with the cloth. Your clooties can also be hung as offerings to fairies, elemental spirits or just the genus loci or spirit of the place. There may even be a spring in a park or natural area near you; look for small streams of water and try to follow them back to their origin. You may find one that just comes from a tiny pool that isn't fed from any other water source. This is probably a natural spring, and you can pay your respects to its resident water spirit by hanging a clootie from a nearby branch. This is also a way you can honour a special tree or bush in your neighbourhood.

Rags in spell work

Cloth has many characteristics that makes it especially good to incorporate into spellcraft. Colours can be chosen to correspond with the type of spell (green or gold for money, red or pink for love, etc.), a deity whose aid you're requesting, or the zodiacal or planetary correspondence. You can write a petition, name or sigil onto a cloth and either use it to contain herbs or other elements of the spell, or incorporate it into the spell as you would a paper. Rags can be pieces of new cloth, bought specially or taken from your stash, or they can be remnants of old clothing or other possessions, in which case they are a powerful magical link to the original owner. Traditionally, rags with the strongest personal connection come from shirts or undershirts (because they're worn against the heart), underwear (because it contacts the genitals) or scarves (because they're worn on the head), but any piece of clothing will retain a link to the person who's worn it. Even leftover scraps from fabric have a connection to the rest of the fabric and therefore to the person wearing the garment made from it.

You can work backwards from this idea too, and perform a spell onto a piece of fabric that is then incorporated into a garment or other item for someone. A protective charm can be made and sewn inside a shirt, for example, or a love charm into a bag.
Quilts are a perfect place to include magically-prepared cloth, for example. And incorporating scraps from the clothing of loved ones and ancestors has always been a traditional practice of quilters even when there was no overt magical intent.


The use of poppets as magical stand-ins for specific people is extremely ancient. Its most well-known form is in cursing or causing harm, but poppets are very often used in magic for healing, protection and especially love and relationships. Of course poppets can be made of any materials, including wood, wax or straw, but are most often sewn out of scraps of fabric. This allows them to be stuffed with suitable herbs, charms and other materials, and most significantly, to be made out of fabric that was once worn by the person represented. This creates a uniquely powerful connection that will amplify any spell worked with the poppet.

If your poppet is made of wood, clay or other material, you can still use a personal scrap of fabric to dress it. The ideal, of course, is to use fabric from the clothing of the person represented to make similar clothing for the poppet, so it will resemble its subject even more closely. But even just a scrap of personal fabric tied on as a sash or scarf will greatly enhance the power of the poppet.

A poppet could be used for ancestor work, too. We often have small scraps of fabric, handkerchiefs, lace or odd garments from our great-grandparents or even more distant ancestors. You could create a poppet to represent either a specific ancestor from whom you have a piece of fabric, or simply "my ancestors known and unknown". Dress the doll in a style that suggests the right period of the past (it doesn't have to be historically accurate - just a few period touches is enough) and incorporate any bits of actual ancestral fabric you have. Add an inherited button, hat pin or brooch to finish it off. Give your poppet a place on your ancestral altar, and treat it as an honoured member of the family.


  1. Wonderful... I have a tree in my backyard that is just perfect to be a clootie tree.Just thinking about it makes me happy.

  2. This is a great post! A personal "clootie" tree! Wonderful!