The old Ozark hillfolk carried with them a whole host of taboos, signs, and omens, many of which could mean the downfall of the family associated with the sign or the breaking of the taboo. When a taboo is broken, or when a certain bad omen is seen, it puts a harmful curse or “cuss” on the person or family, but there are certain actions that the person, if they’re in the know, may do in order to avoid certain tragedy. These actions aren’t limited to healers, but are most often carried by lay people who were passed the actions by family members. One story I remember is of an Ozark woman alone one night in the cabin with her children when all of a sudden a screech owl, which is probably the most well known omen of death, flies into the house. While the children were screaming and crying (seemingly knowing the omen even though they were very young) the woman shooed the owl out of the house with a broom then “took off the cuss” by throwing salt into the fire and knotting up a piece of yarn.
Below are some more examples from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore” of actions performed in order to “take off the cuss”:
“It is bad luck to drop a dishrag…and many women take the cuss off by throwing a pinch of salt over the left shoulder immediately.”
“If one spills salt at the table it is said that there will be a violent family quarrel, ending only when someone pours water on the salt that has been spilled. Some folks try to ‘take the cuss off’ by throwing a pinch of salt into the fire, or over the left shoulder, but most of the old-timers regard this as childish the only thing that really helps is to pour water on the spilled salt.”
“In case two persons should unthinkingly start to dry their hands on the same towel, they hasten to twist the cloth between them this is supposed to take the cuss off’n it, in a measure at least.”
“It is very bad luck to return to the house for anything which has been forgotten, or to come back to the house when you have started to go somewhere. If you must return, however, always make a cross in the dust of the road and spit on the cross, before setting out again. Some old-timers insist that the cross must be marked on the doorstep. Other people take the cuss off by sitting down in a chair and counting ten, or sitting down and making a wish, before leaving the cabin for the second time. Some say one has only to sit down for a moment and spit three times on the floor. Others think it is necessary to walk backward out of the house, while counting ‘ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, AMEN!’”
“A girl who drops the comb while combing her hair is doomed to some sort of disappointment, but she may ‘take the cuss off’ in a measure by counting backward from ten as she retrieves the comb.”