Strange signs and even stranger practices weave a colorful culture in the mountain communities of the Ozarks.
Hillfolk of the 1800’s relied on various superstitions and “wives tales” to determine the course of their daily lives. From courtship and relationships to illness and death, these stories were an intricate part of mountain community life with variations from place to place.
During the early twentieth century, photographer and folklorist Vance Randolph traveled the Ozark region collecting superstitions, ghost stories, and snapshots of life in general among the hill people. He published his journey in 1947, a colorful narrative sprinkled with mountain lore governing the day-to-day decisions of rural residents and the wisdom that oversaw their lives from birth to death.
Signs of Courtship
Courtship symbols abounded in mountain communities and were treated with seriousness by rural residents. While many seemed silly, mountain folk believed an array of happenings, animals, or accidents were signs that marriage was impending for someone within the household, or that some were doomed forever to be single.
A girl who caught her skirts frequently in briars was soon to catch a husband; whereas, a girl who rode a mule would never be married. Three candles or lamps placed accidentally in a row signaled there would soon be a marriage within the family. Finding two snakes in the house, albeit a less pleasant coincidence, symbolized the same event.
Plant and Animal Omens
Health, happiness, and personal safety were guarded or promoted by certain aspects of nature. Mountain superstitions regarding the natural world created a lengthy guide on using or interacting with natural elements, both plants and animals. Plants like the burdock root, when strung like beads, were believed to protect children from witches. A necklace of elder twigs eases a child’s toothache during teething.
It was declared bad luck to tease a “Devil’s horse” or praying mantis; the seemingly-harmless wren was declared a symbol of supernatural evil, possessed of a poisonous bite should humans attempt to harm it. The wren’s nests and person remained largely unmolested by mountain children.
Friends and Neighbors
Many superstitions governed relationships between people in general. Superstitions oversaw interaction between friends, family, and neighbors. Even strangers, both people and animals, were greeted according to mountain wisdom on the subject.
A sputtering fire with no apparent cause was said to signal a family fight between two members within the next twenty-four hours. When visiting a neighbor’s house, a mountain dweller made sure to leave by the same door he originally entered, to avoid bad luck.
Superstitions regarding death and burial also influenced the lives of mountain folk. Numerous safeguards were observed, from customs regarding protection of the body to safely interring it, usually enacted for the protection of others present in the household.
Ozark superstition proclaimed that a neighbor should immediately stop the clock upon the passing, to prevent another death in the household within the year. All the mirrors in the house would be covered with white cloths to prevent the reflection of the mourners, since it was believed that a person reflected in a house of mourning would not live beyond the next year.
From protective acts to personal habits, these symbols were heeded by mountain folk of old. The power of those beliefs live on, with vestiges of those superstitions still present in some rural regions.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic and Folklore. Dover Publishing Company: New York, 1964.