We have all heard them. If you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. She breaks a mirror and brings seven years of bad luck. She never opens an umbrella in the house.
These are some of the most popular, but did you know that the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas are full of families who still believe in 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 statements and certain events.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first white man to chronicle the hinterland of the Ozarks, referred in his 1818 book to the early settlers as having “onerous superstitions.” Whether these came from his ancestors or were beliefs assimilated through his close contact with the Osage and Cherokee cannot be proven.
Schoolcraft wrote: “Among all classes superstition prevails. Witchcraft and the belief in the sovereign virtue of certain metals so prevalent at those periods in the history of the progress of the human mind which reflects the misfortune of our species still have their defenders here.” “. She wrote of a “hunter who was so convinced his rifle had been bewitched that she couldn’t kill anything with it and therefore sold it for that account.” The hunter suspected that a malicious neighbor had bewitched the rifle. Another hunter’s wife was convinced that his brass ring was an infallible remedy for the cramp, “that it bothered him a lot before he put the ring on, but that she hadn’t had the slightest return since.”
Vance Randolph was a prolific researcher and writer who combed the Ozarks in the early 1920s in search of superstitions, stories, and songs from the elders who were first-generation descendants of early settlers. In his 1947 book entitled Ozark Superstitions wrote: “The Hillman is secretive and sensitive beyond what the average city dweller can imagine, but he is not simple. His mind moves in a tremendously complicated system of esoteric signs, omens and omens. He has little interest in the mental procedure moderns call science, and their ways of organizing data and evaluating evidence are very different from those currently preferred in the world beyond the hilltops.The people of the Ozark hills have often been described as the most superstitious people in America.
Most of the older people Randolph interviewed scoffed at the idea of being superstitious and then recounted as a “gospel truth” a strange and wild belief that they personally held dear. Often these “gospel truths” conflicted hill and valley depending on the clan of people interviewed.
Moon signs are a great example. Every Ozark resident was sure to know when to plant spring potatoes to ensure the best harvest. March 17 was the tried-and-true date, unless you were the family that knew it was “absolutely right” to plant in the moonlight. Of course, other families scoffed at “those meaningless superstitions” and planted every year in the dark of the moon.
The moon controlled many of the old settler’s actions. Looking through the branches of trees to see the full moon was considered a way to “confuse” the brain. On the other hand, the moon could help carry the future couple. 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 your right foot
There will be a hair.”
She would then take off her right shoe and naturally find hair like her future husband’s, Randolph wrote.
Physical characteristics had a lot to do with success, according to many early settlers. In both the Arkansas and the Missouri Ozarks, people repeat the saying “a man with a lot of hair on his legs is always a good pig farmer.”
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 is any indication:
If a woman’s eyes are gray, listen carefully to what she has to say.
If a woman’s eyes are black, give her space and a long way.
If a woman’s eyes are brown, never drop yours.
If a woman’s eyes are green, hit her with a switch that’s sharp.
If a woman’s eyes are blue, she will always be faithful to you.
The weather was a topic of great interest. A rainbow in the afternoon meant clear weather, but a rainbow in the morning indicated a storm within twenty-four hours. The people of the hills watched and listened to their animals and chickens to know if it was going to rain. “If a rooster crows when he lies down, he will get up with a wet head.”
A shower on Monday, according to some, meant that it would rain more or less every day that week. Others said that if it rained on Monday there would be two or more rainy days, but that Friday would be bright and beautiful. However, if the sun “sets clear” on Tuesday, it will almost certainly rain before Friday. Many Ozarker natives still believe that rain during a funeral is a sign of the deceased person’s eternal destiny. “Blessed are the dead on whom the rain falls,” the saying goes.
Certain household items and accessories had distributive properties. Eggs carried in a man’s hat would hatch all the roosters. If a pregnant mother wanted a girl, she could place a frying pan under her mattress. Of course, she could carefully check the side of her husband’s bed under which he may have hidden a razor which was a sure sign that she was looking for a child.
The numerous, complex, and often convoluted superstitions of the Ozark natives are sometimes ridiculed by “outsiders,” but that hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm for these deeply held beliefs. In fact, a bruise just lit up in my mailbox. If I can go out and sing “the money is coming” three times before it flies away, I’ll have money in the mail before the end of the week.