Day 202: Fire Lore

As it gets colder out I thought I would take a look at some Ozark folk beliefs surrounding fires. All of these quotes are taken from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”.

Weather Signs:

“The lumping of table salt, the unusual creaking of chairs, the loud sputtering of a kerosene lamp, an extraordinary amount of crackling in a wood fire, the ‘warping up’ of a rag carpet, the sudden flabbiness of hitherto dry and crisp tobacco leaves; all these phenomena are supposed to indicate rain.”

“I know deer hunters in Arkansas who think that if an autumn campfire spits and sputters more than usual, it means that a snowstorm is not far off. The firewood, they say, is ‘stompin’ snow.’ Mr. Elbert Short, of Crane, Missouri, agrees with the deer hunters. ‘If your wood fries an’ sings an’ pops an’ cracks,’ says he, ‘it’s a sure sign that snow is a-comin’.’”

“When a cat sits down with its tail toward the fire, the hillman looks for a cold spell.”

Household Superstitions:

“If the fire spits and sputters without any apparent cause, it means that two members of the family will quarrel within twenty- four hours.”

“When a small boy plays at stirring the fire, it is a sign that he will urinate in his bed that night. This old saying prevents many a little boy from messing with the fire, since whenever he goes near it the other children begin to giggle. People in Baxter county, Arkansas, tell a long story about a girl who was sitting up with her beau, while her little brother kept running in and stirring the fire; this was regarded as very embarrassing, and the poor girl’s friends ‘plagued her plumb to death ‘bout it.’” (I heard this more than a few times as a kid).

“Mrs. C. P. Mahnkey, Mincy, Missouri, tells me that no true hillbilly ever burns walnut shells. If a walnut shell is inadvertently cast into the fire, some member of the family hastens to snatch it out at any cost.”

“The hulls or skins of certain vegetables, on the other hand, are always burned, never disposed of in any other manner. I have known households where the women made a great show of saving onion peelings, which were carefully gathered up and burned in the fireplace or the cookstove. One woman told me that people who throw onion peel out on the ground are likely to suffer some financial reverses, and that she knew personally of a case in which carelessness in this matter caused a Civil War veteran to be deprived of his pension.”

“Never look directly into a fire that is being kindled; if you do it will not burn properly and may bring bad luck to the whole household besides. Some hill people become quite irritated if a guest persists in staring straight into a stove or fireplace, when it is not burning well. To do so is very bad manners and somehow appears to cast discredit upon the family.”

Courtship and Marriage:

“There are many ways of determining whether or not one’s sweetheart is faithful. If the fire which a man kindles burns brightly, he knows that his sweetheart is true to him, but if it smolders, she is likely to prove unfaithful.”

Ozark Witchcraft:

“If several persons are seated about a fire, and the sparks which pop out seem to be directed toward one particular individual, it is said that this person is somehow connected with the powers of evil. I have often heard this notion dismissed lightly, as when a great burst of sparks flew directly at a very ugly old woman, who showed her toothless gums in a grin. ‘Fire follers beauty,’ she said. We all laughed, but some of the old-timers looked distinctly uncomfortable.”

Death and Burial:

“The typical hillman avoids any firewood which pops or crackles too much, in the belief that burning such wood will bring about the death of some member of his family.”

“To burn sassafras wood is supposed to cause the death of one’s mother, and although sassafras makes very fine charcoal, no decent native will burn it, or even haul it to the kiln, unless his mother is already dead. There is an old saying that the Devil sits a-straddle of the roof when sassafras pops in the fireplace…”

“It is very bad luck to burn peach trees, and dreadful results are almost certain to follow. I know a man and woman who cut down and burned some old peach trees, despite the warnings of their neighbors. Sure enough, their baby became sick a few days later. The neighbors helped them as best they could, but one and all refused to come into the house or have anything further to do with the family if any more peach trees were burned.”

There’s also bad luck associated with spitting or urinating on a fire. I’ve heard this from several Ozark folks. This may have been influenced by Cherokeeor other Native American beliefs, where disrespecting the fire can cause all sorts of pains and illnesses.

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