Secrecy is an important aspect of many folk healing traditions. In many cases a person will take their healing charms and practices with them to the grave without telling another soul. This is often frustrating for folklorists wanting to research these folkways; they often come head to head with a possible informant who isn’t willing to talk. For people like me, who straddle the line between collector and practitioner, these silent witnesses have helped to keep the traditions alive and unharmed for generations. I respect them greatly for their silence, and I myself have learned how important it is to keep some things to yourself.
In the Ozarks there are several taboos surrounding the passing of verbal charms and healing knowledge. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but it bears repeating here. The most common “rule” of verbal charms is the passing of a charm between people of opposite sexes. Sometimes a variant of this is the passing of a charm from an older person to a younger person. In this way an older man or woman (often a parent or grandparent) can only pass on verbal charms to someone who is younger and the opposite sex as them. Another variation says that they can only pass it to a family member.
Much of the folklore surrounding the passing of charms says that the charm will either lose all power or some of its power when passed on to a new healer. It’s for this reason that healers are often very picky when it comes to who they will pass charms on to. It’s most often someone who they know wants to keep the work going. It can become a sort of retirement for the healer.
Because the charms lose power when passed, they are often spoken behind a hand, or silently under the healer’s breath. The idea is that the more people that hear a charm spoken the less power it will have. Secrecy is key. In the same way many healers refuse to write down their charms, but keep them all by memory. A common test for a new student is to sit down with them and give them maybe five or six charms that they can’t record or write down but have to memorize then come back to the healer the next day and say them all perfectly from memory. Someone who isn’t able to do this doesn’t have what it takes to be a healer.
Obviously not all healers abide by the taboos of their trade, or else we wouldn’t have hardly any information on verbal charms at all. There are healers out there that don’t believe in any of the rules, and will pass charms to whomever and however they choose. I’ve talked to healers out there about folks like that and the general response has always been a negative one. One informant I talked to just smiled and said, “I bet people like that make a lot of money off of this.” Meaning that he assumed the person not abiding by the rules was also making money off of the healing work and possibly selling charms, another taboo.
In my experience this kind of secrecy only really applies to the use of verbal charms in healing work. There are many healers and herbalists that I’ve met who are more than happy to share traditional knowledge on plants and remedies. An exception comes with knowledge of the whereabouts of ginseng or “sang” patches which is hardly ever told to anyone outside of the family, and the occasional recipe for an herbal preparation that folks would want to keep secret.
While there may not be many taboos surrounding the giving out of plant knowledge, there’s often a great deal of joy taken in telling a stranger wrong information about common plants in the area or tricking them in some way. A couple common tricks are convincing people to eat unripe persimmons or lick a broken bloodroot tuber (horrible mistakes as they are both extremely astringent). Tricks like this are often a sort of initiation that you have to go through in order to gain the trust of many hillfolk. Personally I will take every opportunity to trick someone into eating an unripe persimmon. It’s quite the hilarious sight.