There’s a lot of folklore and folk beliefs surrounding the Devil in the Ozarks, and it’s no surprise coming out of this very religious culture. There are probably more folk beliefs about the Devil and witches than any other subject. The Devil is often seen as the main perpetrator of sickness and death in the world around us, so any practice that might help to scare him off is welcomed by hillfolk.
As religious as Ozark people may be, it’s interesting to see how most of these folk beliefs have little to do with the Bible, and instead come from some primal understanding about the world around us. Nowhere in the Good Book does it say that you should never burn sassafras wood in your home, but this folk belief was common among even the most religious hillfolk. It seems a lot of this lore taps into much more ancient beliefs and traditions that have been passed down through the ages.
Here are a few of the many entries about the Devil from Mary Celestia Parler’s “Folk Beliefs of Arkansas”:
“If you kill a bat the devil and witches will haunt you.”
“Black dogs, black cows, and black horses have more of the devil in them than other animals.”
“If you repeat Bloody Bones one hundred times, he will come visit you at night.”
“Burn a spider and you will have bad luck or the devil will get after you.”
“If you step on the cracks in the sidewalk, you break the devil’s dishes.”
“If it rains while a man is dying, the devil has come for his soul.”
“Go hunting on Friday night and you will tree the devil.”
“A sneeze is a body effort to cast off the devil’s influence.”
“If you go fishing on Sunday you’ll catch a little devil.”
“A whistle in the house invites the devil in.”
“Never burn sassafras wood in your stove because it brings devils to plague your home.”
“Sassafras wood was never burned in the fireplace; it meant the Devil would come and sit a-straddle of the roof.”
“When the fire popped in the fireplace, it was a sign the devil was sitting on the roof.”
“A violin has a devil in it. If you kill a rattlesnake and put the rattles in it, it will drive the devil out.”
“For good luck in keeping the devil away. Pound nails in the heels of your boots in the shape of an X.”
And here are some folk beliefs from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
“To eat or drink at the same time one urinates or defecates is very bad luck, and I have known children to be severely whipped when the mother caught them eating candy in the privy. The child who eats anything under such conditions is said to be ‘feedin’ the Devil an’ starvin’ God.’”
“It is unlucky to cut your fingernails on Sunday you’ll have a pain in the neck for seven days, or the Devil will rule your house all week, or something of the sort. It’s bad luck to trim fingernails on Friday, too. Monday is the best day for this, and it is said that people who cut their fingernails on Monday will always have plenty of money.”
“Blue jays are supposed to be very rare on weekends, and children are told that these birds go to hell every Friday to help the Devil gather kindling. Another story is that the blue jay spends Friday breaking off twigs to be burned by wicked people here on earth. There is an old song with the chorus:
Don’t you hear that jaybird call?
Don’t you hear them dead sticks fall?
He’s a-throwin’ down firewood for we-all,
All on a Friday mornin’.”
“There are people in northeastern Arkansas who believe that the Devil appeared near the end of the eighteenth century, at a pioneer settlement called Kentertown, some say as a warning of the great earthquake that occurred there in 1812. Several versions of the tale are still in oral circulation, and they differ as to the town, the date, and the names of the witnesses. But all the stories agree that two young Arkansas boys actually met the Devil in the brush, in broad daylight, and that he first appeared as a headless man with a cloven hoof. Later on he assumed other frightful shapes, roared like a lion, belched out great quantities of smoke, and so on. Finally the Devil snatched up one of the youths, tore out most of his hair, and handled him so roughly that he was unable to walk. Upon this the other young man fell upon his knees and cried out to God, asking help in Jesus’ name. Instantly the Devil vanished in a cloud of stinking smoke, and the young man carried his injured companion back to town.”
“An old man near Caverna, Missouri, told me that he once met the Devil walking along in the snow just south of the Missouri- Arkansas line. When I questioned him about the Devil’s appearance he described an ordinary countryman blue overalls, slouch hat, skinny face, long hair, shotgun on shoulder, and so on. ‘He just looked like any common ordinary feller,’ said the old man wonderingly. I pondered this for awhile. ‘But how did you know it was the Devil?’ I asked. The old man looked fearfully around, then leaned toward me and whispered: ‘He didn’t throw no shadder! He didn’t leave no tracks!’”
“In various parts of Missouri and Arkansas one hears the story of a great hole in the ground, surrounded by rugged cliffs, where hunters have heard strange sounds and smelled unusual odors. Some say that the Devil lives in that hole, imprisoned under a heavy fall of rock. There are stories of old men who claim to have visited the place as children. Some of these men swear that they heard the Devil’s groans and curses and smelled burning flesh and brimstone. Strange people live on the escarpments, it is said, and throw odd things into the pit at night, particularly when the moon is full. There are tales of dark-visaged ‘furriners’ traveling at night, who make regular pilgrimages to the place from distant parts of the country.”