We’ve all heard them. If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back. Break a mirror and bring seven years of bad luck. Never open an umbrella in the house.
Those are a few of the most popular, but did you know the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas are filled with families who still believe certain, strange superstitions? Superstition, which can also be called magical thinking, is a term used to describe causal reasoning that looks for correlations between acts or utterances and certain events.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first white man to chronicle the interior of the Ozarks, referred in his 1818 book to early settlers as having “burdensome superstitions.” It cannot be proven whether these came from their ancestors or were beliefs assimilated by their close contact with the Osage and Cherokee.
Schoolcraft wrote, “Among all classes superstition is prevalent. Witchcraft and a belief in the sovereign virtue of certain metals so prevalent in those periods of the history of the progress of the human mind which reflects disgrace upon our species have still their advocates here.” He wrote about a “hunter who was so convinced his rifle had been bewitched so that he could kill nothing with it and thus sold it on that account.” The hunter suspected a malicious neighbor had laid a spell upon the rifle. Another hunter’s wife was convinced her brass ring was an infallible remedy for the cramp, “which she was much troubled with before putting on the ring, but had not had the slightest return of it since.”
Vance Randolph was a prolific researcher and writer who combed the Ozark Mountains in the early 1920s for superstitions, stories and songs from the old people who were first generation descendants of the early settlers. In his 1947 book entitled Ozark Superstitions he wrote, “The Hillman is secretive and sensitive beyond anything that the average city dweller can imagine, but he isn’t simple. His mind moves in a tremendously involved system of signs and omens and esoteric auguries. He has little interest in the mental procedure that the moderns call science, and his ways of arranging data and evaluating evidence are very different from those currently favored in the world beyond the hilltops. The Ozark hill folk have often been described as the most superstitious people in America.”
Most old people Randolph interviewed scoffed at the idea of being superstitious then told for a “gospel truth” a strange and wild belief they personally held dear. Often these “gospel truths” conflicted from hill and vale depending on the clan of people interviewed.
Moon signs are a great example. Every Ozark resident was sure he knew when to plant spring potatoes in order to guarantee the best crop. March 17 was the tried and true date, unless you were from the family who knew it was “absolutely right” to plant in the light of the moon. Of course, other families scoffed at “them senseless superstitions” and planted each year in the dark of the moon.
The moon controlled a lot of the old settler’s actions. Peering through the tree limbs to gaze upon a full moon was considered one way to “addle” your brain. On the other hand, the moon could help portend one’s future mate. If a girl heard a dove and saw the new moon at the same instant, she had to repeat this verse:
“Bright moon, clear moon,
Bright and fair,
Lift up your right foot
There’ll be a hair.”
Then, she was to take off her right shoe and would naturally find in it a hair like that of her future husband wrote Randolph.
Physical characteristics had a lot to do with success, according to many early settlers. In both the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks folks repeat the saying “a man with lots of hair on his legs is always a good hog raiser.”
Small ears are supposed to indicate a stingy personality. Green-eyed women did not fare very well in early Ozarks culture if the following verse about a woman’s eye color gives any indication:
If a woman’s eyes are gray, listen close to what she’s got to say.
If a woman’s eyes are black, give her room and plenty o’track.
If a woman’s eyes are brown, never let your own fall down.
If a woman’s eyes are green, whip her with a switch that’s keen.
If a woman’s eyes are blue, she will always be true to you.
Weather was a subject of great interest. A rainbow in the evening meant clear weather, but a rainbow in the morning indicated a storm within twenty-four hours. Hill folks watched and listened to their animals and chickens to learn if it was going to rain. “If a cock crows when he goes to bed, he’ll get up with a wet head.”
A rain on Monday, according to some meant that it would rain more or less every day that week. Others said if it rained on Monday there would be two or more rainy days, but that Friday would be bright and fair. However, if the sun “sets clear” on Tuesday, it was sure to rain before Friday. Many native Ozarkers still believe rain during a funeral is a sign concerning the eternal destination of the dead person. “Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on,” goes the saying.
Certain household items and accessories had distributive properties. Eggs carried in a man’s hat would all hatch roosters. If a pregnant mother wished for a baby girl, she could place a frying pan underneath her mattress. Of course, she might carefully check her husband’s side of the bed under which he may have hidden a jack knife which was a sure sign he was looking for a boy.
The numerous, complex and often convoluted superstitions held by native Ozarks are sometimes ridiculed by “outsiders,” but that hasn’t diminished their enthusiasm for these closely held beliefs. In fact, a cardinal just lit on my mailbox. If I can slip outside and chant, “money cometh” three times before it flies away, I’ll have money in the mail before week’s end.