Day 49: Lightning Lore



Lightning strikes were a very real fear for Ozark hillfolk. One strike in the dry part of summer could easily burn down a cabin and set fire to large sections of forest. Ozark people developed certain folk beliefs surrounding lightning, whether it was to protect yourself or to use lightning to your advantage.

Vance Randolph lists some lightning related lore in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“Barn swallows are supposed to bring good luck to cattlemen, and it is said that a barn in which swallows are nesting will never be struck by lightning.”

“It is said that lightning often strikes a cook stove but has never been known to strike one with a fire in it.”

“In some sections of Arkansas there are people who bury the entrails of a black hen under the hearth on ‘Old Christmas.’ This is said to protect the house against destruction by lightning or fire.”

“Many hillmen believe that black walnut trees draw lightning and will not go near them in a storm. It is quite common for hillfolk to cut down all the walnuts, even little ones, that grow near their cabins.”

“When lightning strikes the ground, some woodsmen pretend to look around for the thunderbolt, which is supposed to be a piece of iron about three feet long, forked at one end. These thunderbolts are said to be used in making fish gigs, and a finger ring hammered out of thunderbolt iron is a sure cure for rheumatism. I have myself seen, in Washington county, Arkansas, an old iron ring which the owner told me was made of a thunderbolt recovered in Kentucky before 1815.”

“I have met hillmen who think that it is bad luck to use the word thunder, particularly during an electrical storm. They feel that people who keep talking about thunder are likely to get struck by lightning. Instead of saying thunder, they use some familiar circumlocution, such as ‘the ‘tater wagon is a-rollin’,” or ‘they’re crossin’ the old bridge now.’ Some Ozark farmers deliberately cross their ‘galluses’ on stormy days to guard against lightning, but the man who gets his galluses crossed accidentally, when he puts on his trousers in the morning, will have bad luck all day.“

“A lot of backwoods families are very careful not to use the wood of a lightnin’-struck tree for fuel, in the belief that this renders the cabin more likely to be struck by lightning.”

In the Ozarks trees that have been struck by lightning are thought of as being charged with some supernatural power, and are therefore used often in old traditions of healing. I’ve known of toothpicks made from lightning wood to cure a toothache instantly, also talismans made from lightning wood to protect the wearer.


The Cherokee have certain beliefs about lightning wood as well. These are recorded in “Myths of the Cherokee” by James Mooney:

“Mysterious properties attach to the wood of a tree which has been struck by lightning, especially when the tree itself still lives, and such wood enters largely into the secret compounds of the conjurers. An ordinary person of the laity will not touch it, for fear of having cracks come upon his hands and feet, nor is it burned for fuel, for fear that lye made from the ashes will cause consumption. In preparing ballplayers for the contest, the medicine-man sometimes burns splinters of it to coal, which he gives to the players to paint themselves with in order that they may be able to strike their opponents with all the force of a thunderbolt. Bark or wood from a tree struck by lightning, but still green, is beaten up and put into the water in which seeds are soaked before planting, to insure a good crop, but, on the other hand, any lightning-struck wood thrown into the field will cause the crop to wither, and it is believed to have a bad effect even to go into the field immediately after having been near such a tree.”

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