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Robert Taylor from Stirling, ON, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Cast iron, wood-fired cook stoves were a regular feature of southern Appalachian kitchens, well into the second half of the twentieth century. One of them yielded granny’s soup beans, cornpone, biscuits, and her signature clove-heavy pies, with heirloom apples collected just outside. It also had a tall, galvanized tank — the first plumbed water heater I ever saw. Eventually, an electric range and water heater displaced these older devices, just as wood stoves before them had displaced fireplaces with iron pots. But the wood stove remained in granny’s kitchen for years, alongside the newer, knob-twisted convenience. One advantage was the heat it provided in winter while cooking.

That big, black, hot surface came with no warning indicators, and it offered living lessons in action-consequence. One such lesson left me in tears, with burned fingers. The advice came right away: “Run in yonder and git Zeke to take the fire out.” My step-grandfather took my hand and paused for several seconds with head bowed, then blew onto my fingers three times. The pain abated immediately, an experience also recounted by others.

How did it work?

My curiosity about this mysterious power grew until it became an irresistible itch. I finally learned its secret from my step-grandfather’s daughter (more later on why she was the one to tell me). That pause before the blowing allowed time for a silent recitation. I am here revealing those secret words for the first time in public:

There was [sic] two angels, come from the north.
One brought fire, the other brought frost.
Come out fire! Go in frost!
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Not even almighty Google can provide a definitive answer; only general discussions of a medieval scholastics puzzle. But, Google can provide some answers to my question: How many angels are needed to take the fire out? The answer, depending on history and place, is one out of two — or three.

Google Books has digitized many old volumes. Searching for my recitation returned a rich history behind that same “fire charm” I learned as a child:

Source: Black, William George. 1833. Folk-medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture. The Folk-Lore Society, London, 1833. Chapter V, “Our Lord and the Saints in Folk-Medicine,“ p. 81.

Then, in a footnote:

Here at last I had a direct connection to 19th century Devonshire (and passed down orally thence from centuries before), for the “fire charm” that kept going, all the way to southwest Virginia onto my burned fingers. The language is nearly identical to the version I remember, right down to the singular “was.” It also explains the reason I had to learn it from a woman, and not directly from my step-grandfather, who had obviously taught it to his daughter.

The astute reader will also note that I have here, in the telling, frittered away my own fire charm power, as soon as the first male reads this post. Said reader may also wonder who first received the charm, although the male angels in the Norfolk version imply that it was first spoken to a woman, perhaps with instructions on how to pass it down without breaking the power.

I found more:

Source: Levack, Brian P. 2012. New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology: Volume 5, Witchcraft, Healing, and Popular Diseases Routledge, 350 pp. From p. 23, “Healing Charms in Use in England and Wales 1700–1950.”

And so on through other examples, from Devon, Cornwall, and Cumbria, involving anywhere from two to three angels, and coming from either the east, north or west:

Subsequent web searches revealed that these types of healing charms were used more widely in Appalachia, and other rural areas. With various modified language, they have been employed by practitioners of Christianity and witchcraft alike.

These “fire charms” and other healing incantations were relics of centuries of oral tradition, beginning far before these 19th century reports. They remained in Appalachia well into the era of modern evidence-based medicine, alongside home remedies employing plant-derived poultices, tinctures, teas, etc. The healing arts had some basis in evidence, of course, derived from trial and error with natural products. But that’s the subject of another post.

You may be wondering why I, devotee of science and hard-boiled skeptic, am relating this personal story of burn relief, and the traditions it illustrates. Do I believe that charms, incantations, angels, or witches have the power to heal? Of course not. Our contemporary knowledge of how the brain works has revealed the positive effects of mental state, expectation, belief, and placebo on our perceptions. I felt that burn relief, as did many others; that much is certain.

This is a missing ingredient from medicine that seems to rely solely on the cold, rational, dissected worldview of logic and science, just as with John Keats’ famous charge that Newton’s prism had taken all the fun out of rainbows. The human touch, increasingly shunned in our expanding cultural milieu of fear and suspicion, is needed badly in both healing and social bonding.

Occasionally I meet parents who wish to sanitize all fantasy from their children’s lives, including such “lies” as Santa Claus. Far greater scientific minds than mine have expounded on the critical importance of imagination for science. That old fire charm brings rushing back the days when I could believe that, if I was only quiet enough, I might meet a talking rabbit just around the next split rail fence corner, or sneak up on a gathering of little people in the woods. Childhood imagination was a forge that fired me to devour every book I could get my hands on, and led to greater understanding with time.

A sense of wonder and the possibility of the unlikely remain core to the scientific approach, whether or not its practitioners are willing to admit it. Don’t be fooled by the stony face, the controlled experiment, or the reams of big data.

I treasure those fire charms, and time spent in the company of family, and alone in the fields and woods. To the extent that we expunge opportunities for childhood imagination, restrict children’s experience to electronic diversions, or render clinical our own human relations, we are, withal, poorer.

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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