A knife is of course an important practical tool to have, and was essential for the survival of many of our Ozark ancestors, but it’s also an important object for the healer. It can be used to cut through sickness, in a symbolic sense, as well as perform any home surgeries that might be needed.
Here we’re going to be talking about the symbolic use of the knife as an object that represents this magical “cutting.” This symbolic “cutting” can take many forms, such as separating a sickness from a person, or separating an evil influence, or “cutting” through illusions or bewitchment. A knife or axe can also be used to “cut” weather, as seen in an example below. The knife and the axe are often used in the same way. You can see a similar usage with birth pains. A remedy for a painful labor can come from placing a knife or axe under the bed of the pregnant woman so as to symbolically “cut” the pain. Nightmares can also be “cut” by placing a knife under the dreamer’s pillow, or a room protected from evil by suspending a knife over the door. Sickness can be removed from a person by tying a string around the afflicted part of the body then cutting it (the string) off and destroying or burying it.
These are just a few examples of this kind of “cutting,” there are many more out there. Folk magic tends to be based on the sympathetic connection between object and cure, so that you can use a knife in any situation that would call for a symbolic, or physical, cutting.
Here are some knife uses and folkways collected by Vance Randolph and included in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
“No hillman would think of giving a steel blade to a friend such a gift is sure to sever their friendship. Whenever a knife changes hands, it must be paid for, even if the sum is merely nominal. I have seen a salesman, a graduate of the University of Missouri, present his son with a valuable hunting knife but he never let it out of his hand till the boy had given him a penny.”
“The accidental crossing of two case knives at the table must be avoided, as it is likely to cause a desperate fight between members of the family; if knives are crossed inadvertently, they must be touched only by the same person who crossed them…If one finds an open clasp knife he snaps the blade shut immediately; if it is a sheath knife of the rigid kind, he thrusts the blade into the ground at once.”
“Members of the older generation feel strongly that cornbread must be broken it is very bad luck to cut it with a knife. Some old-timers are much upset to see a stranger, even in a hotel, cutting cornbread. I have known several who refused to eat at the table where such a thing occurred but got up and left at once.”
“There is an old story to the effect that when a farmer sees a cyclone coming he should run into a field and stick his knife into the ground, with the edge of the blade toward the approaching cloud. The knife is supposed to ‘split the wind,’ so that his dwelling and barn will be spared. This notion is widely known in the Ozarks, and it is said that it is still practiced in Carroll county, Arkansas.”
“A prominent Arkansas lawyer tells me that in his boyhood the essential thing was to cut big notches in a stranger’s apple tree with a stolen knife, one notch for each wart to be removed. This was quite an undertaking, for knives were highly prized and hence difficult to steal. Even more serious was the fact that the people in the neighborhood were all acquainted, so that a boy had to travel a considerable distance before he could find a stranger’s apple tree.”
“There is a very general notion in the hill country that the instrument which caused a wound is still a part of the situation and must be somehow included in the treatment given the wound itself. Thus when a mountain man cuts himself accidentally, he hastens to thrust the offending knife or ax deep into the soil, believing that this will stop excessive bleeding and make the wound heal faster.”
“Not many hillfolk practice any sort of magic to determine the sex of an unborn child, although some granny-women teach that parents may ‘fetch a boy’ by sticking a knife in the mattress, while a woman who wants a girl can get results by placing a skillet under the bed.”
“Some people are accustomed to place a knife under the dreamer’s pillow, to prevent nightmares. I once noticed a small girl, not more than ten years old, sleeping with the handle of an enormous homemade bowie knife sticking out from under her pillow. ‘Maizie used to wake up a-hollerin’,’ the mother told me, ‘but since I put that there knife under the piller, we aint had no more trouble.’”