In Ozark speak a token is an omen or sign, often taken from the activity of certain animals or sometimes the weather. Here are a few Ozark animal tokens to keep an eye out for.
An albino deer is often seen as a sign of some impending doom or witchcraft afoot, usually related to crops or the movement of game. Seeing an all white deer in the spring is a token for a bad planting season to come. While I’ve often heard that the white buck is a harbinger of death it’s also generally believed that a white deer is a sentry of the otherworld and are often associated with spirits of the land.
Owls are another death token. Seeing an owl on the road is a sign that a witch is working against you. A dead owl in the road is a sign that the witch is working against someone you love. Hearing a screech owl outside your house is often a death or sickness token. A sure way to ward of the impending illness is to shut off all the lights in the house when the owl is heard. The owl, seeing no one at home, will leave and go bother someone else. There’s a myth among hillfolk that you should never imitate the call of the screech owl from inside your home for the owl, hearing a response to his call, will hang around the home until it sees the opportunity to fly down the chimney, spread the coals out onto the floor, and burn the house to the ground.
A redbird tapping at your window is a sure sign that someone’s working against you. If the redbird returns more than three times it’s a sign that sickness and death are on their way to you home.
Crows have multiple tokens associated with them. Seeing a “sentry crow” or a crow lookout is a sign to be on the lookout for danger coming your way. A crow in flight is a sign of good health. Flying to the North shows that someone you love is thinking about you. To the South and someone knew will come into your life. To the East and moveable success or money is on its way. To the West and you’re sure to receive good news soon. Seeing a crow dead on the road is a sign of good luck, but seeing a dead crow next to the road-kill it was eating is a sign that the luck will be short lived.
The great pileated woodpecker, or “Lord God Peckerwood” as it’s sometimes called, is said to be a bird of the spirit world, with some kind of supernatural powers often valued by witches and goomer doctors.
A single horsehair placed in a pond in the winter is said to grow into a snake in the spring.
The Hoop-Snake, or what I’ve heard referred to as the Black Racer, is an interesting legend in the Ozarks. Vance Randolph has a nice entry about the beast:
“The old story of the hoop snake which puts its tail in its mouth and rolls downhill is believed by many; in most cases this creature pursues some poor hillman, misses him, and strikes the horn on its tail into a growing tree; the hoop snake’s horn is deadly poison, and the tree always dies within a few days sometimes the green leaves wither and fall within an hour. Otto Ernest Rayburn repeats the story of a woman who was attacked by a hoop snake, but the sting in the snake’s tail barely touched her dress. She washed the dress next day, and the poison ‘turned three tubs of wash water plumb green!’ I have met reliable and honest farmers who say that they have seen hoop snakes rolling through the tall grass, and there is no doubt in my mind that they are telling what they believe to be the truth. But the scientific herpetologists are all agreed that the hoop snake is a myth.”
It’s said that the cottonmouth snake puts its venom onto a rock before taking a drink of water, and then when it’s finished it sucks the venom back into its fangs.
The common green tree snake is also called the “snake doctor” because it’s said that they are able to heal other snakes of wounds and illness. If you want to do battle with a rattlesnake make sure to find and kill its doctor first.
A goomer doctor that I once knew who did much of his work in the local cemetery, would pour some whisky into what he called the “King’s Hole”, which appeared to be an old abandoned snake hole, before starting his project. The idea was that in paying the rattlesnake who ruled the cemetery his work would surely be successful.
Randolph has an interesting entry about snakes and babies:
“There are several old tales about an odd relationship between snakes and babies. According to one story, well known in many parts of the Ozark country, a small child is seen to carry his cup of bread and milk out into the shrubbery near the cabin. The mother hears the baby prattling but supposes that he is talking to himself. Finally she approaches the child and is horrified to see him playing with a large serpent usually a rattlesnake or copperhead. The baby takes a little food but gives most of his bread and milk to the big reptile. The mother’s first impulse is to kill the snake, of course, but the old-timers say that this would be a mistake. They believe that the snake’s life is somehow linked with that of the child, and if the reptile is killed the baby will pine away and die a few weeks later. I have heard old men and women declare that they had such cases in their own families and knew that the baby did die shortly after the snake’s death.”
Hillfolk are sometimes cautious when using the word “snake”, and will often use epithets like “our friends” or personally I’ve also heard “the devil”, “no legs”, “pents”, and “those things” used in reference to snakes.
There are of course many more animal tokens and myths that aren’t mentioned here. All of these signs show the importance of the natural world to Ozark hillfolk, and the fact that while it might seem that we don’t have much culture, there is a hidden foundation of traditions and beliefs here that are just waiting to be reborn or revived in the modern world. We shouldn’t see these beliefs as just uneducated superstition, but as a rich oral mythic tradition, influenced by many different sources, that still affects the lives of people in the Ozarks today.