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Early Ozark Superstitions
The Ozark Mountains of the 1800s were full of superstitions and vestiges of some of these beliefs still remain. Signs and practices, which today might be regarded as strange, were an important part of daily life in these mountain communities. Researchers have established a large portion of the Ozark population were of Scottish descent.
But, no discussion of early life in this region would be complete without mentioning Vance Randolph. He was a professional writer, folklorist and photographer who lived most of his life in the Ozarks. Randolph was born February, 1892 in Pittsburg, Kansas and moved to southern Missouri in 1919.
Randolph scoured the region gathering superstitions, ghost stories, and pictures of daily life there.. In the 1920s, Randolph wrote many books about life in the Ozarks. He journeyed tirelessly throughout Missouri and Arkansas recording Ozark life and culture for posterity. There were ballads, music and stories that had been handed down from one generation to the next. His published accounts have been hailed as a great value to historians and folklorists. He died in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on November 1, 1980.
Joshua C. Keithley
Not only did they believe in superstitions, they relied upon “mountain medicine.” Trained doctors were virtually nonexistent in the remote Ozark Mountains therefore most had to depend on herbs and other home remedies for their medical needs. Even if there had been a medical doctor available they usually had no money to pay them.
These simple people believed God had put a natural cure on earth for every illness…and recent discoveries have proven many of these alternative medicines worked very effectively. However, mountain medicine frequently came in the form of smelly poultices and teas. Teas were made from a variety of things to treat colds and sneezes such as Cherry bark and Horehound. Some poultices were made from skunk oil or onions. Perhaps, one of the few items they did buy was Castor Oil which seemed to cure everything. Alternative medicine of the Ozark’s, is a story all unto itself.
That being said, hill people observed signs and omens to determine the course of their daily lives. Early Ozark settlers spent much time thinking of the weather, which was natural since most were farmers. There were many indicators used to forecast the weather. These are a few:
· Naturally, the Farmer’s Almanac
· Weather signs
· Superstition or folklore.
A few predictors of rain would be:
· A hog carrying a piece of wood in its mouth
· A rooster continuously crowing at nightfall
· Rabbits playing on a dirt road
There were signs, omens and superstitions to cover almost every facet of life ranging from birth, courtship to death. Mountain folk believed a series of happenings or accidents could signal an impending marriage or indicate a certain person was destined to remain single. For instance, a girl who got her skirt caught in briars was soon to find a husband. On the other hand, a woman seen riding a mule would never marry.
There were also plant, insect and animal omens regarding health and happiness. These things were guided by certain phases of nature. The burdock root when fashioned into a string of beads was used to protect children from witches. And necklaces made from elder twigs could ease teething pain for an infant.
Of course, there were many predictors of bad luck. It was bad luck to tease a praying mantis. Conversely, the praying mantis is regarded as good luck in some Asian countries. If your right eye itches, bad luck will follow. If your left eye itches then it means good luck.
The following guide about sneezing was recorded by Randolph as a good example:
· Sneeze on Monday--kiss a stranger
· Sneeze on Wednesday--good luck will follow
· Sneeze on Thursday--bad luck will follow
· Sneeze on Friday--sorrow will follow
· Sneeze on Saturday--you will find a new friend
· Sneeze on Sunday and the devil will be with you all week
Superstitions affected friends, family, neighbors and strangers. A sputtering fire was said to signal a family fight sometime in the following twenty-four hour period. When people visited a neighbor they left by the same door they came in or else bad luck would befall them.
Death and burial superstitions were also numerous. If a body wasn’t properly interred it could spell doom for others in the household. Upon someone’s death the house timepiece would be immediately stopped to prevent another death within the year.
All mirrors in the house of the deceased were covered with white cloths to prevent mourners from seeing their reflection. It was a common belief a person reflected in a house of mourning would die within the next year.
Ozark Mountain people were said to have been the most superstitious group of people in American history.