284: Ozark Taboos

There are a great many taboos in the Ozarks, inherited mostly from European traditions but with a few indigenous beliefs scattered in. The world of the Ozark hill person was a constant battle against nature, sickness, and the forces of evil. A simple misstep could potentially cause great strife to one’s family and home. The avoidance of breaking certain taboos was one way hillfolk could potentially control the supernatural influences which constantly determined their fate. Here are just a few everyday taboos gathered from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore:

Counting livestock or crops – There are several peculiar taboos against mentioning aloud the exact number of chickens in a flock, or cattle in a herd, particularly if it happens to be an even number one divisible by two. A real old-timer never counts aloud the flowers or fruit on a tree, or the number of peas in a pod, or even the number of ears on a stalk of corn, because of an ancient notion that this counting may injure the crop.

Sweeping after dark and letting a lamp burn down – To sweep a floor after dark or allow a lamp to burn until the last drop of oil is consumed these things are taboo, and many people believe that they are likely to bring death into the family circle.

Avoiding stepping on a grave – If a hillman happens to tread upon a grave, he is supposed to jump backward across it immediately, as otherwise a member of his family will die, according to the old-timers. One of my best friends, an educated Ozarker who is generally indifferent to superstition, surprised me by suddenly springing over a grave in this fashion. “It isn’t a matter of what I believe,” he said later, “but one must respect the prejudices of his neighbors. If I had not jumped back across that grave, it would look as if I want some of my relatives to die!”

Taboo against a new coffeepot – There seem to be no particular taboos attached to the newlyweds’ cooking utensils, except that it is very bad luck to set up housekeeping with a new coffeepot. I have known hillfolk, even educated ones, to borrow a battered old coffeepot and use it for a month or two, before bringing a brand-new one into the house.

Against washing a new mother – Most of the old-timers believe that a woman should never be bathed “all over,” or her bedding completely changed, for nine days after the child is born.

Against washing a newborn –  Some say that the palms of a child’s hands should not be washed until the child is three days old to do so washes away the infant’s luck, particularly in financial matters. It is always best to bathe a new baby’s head with stump water; if ordinary water is used, the child is likely to be prematurely bald when it grows up.

Avoiding starting work on Saturday – Many a mountain man is reluctant to start any sort of job on Saturday, in the belief that he will “piddle around” for six additional Saturdays before he gets it done.

Avoiding laughing before breakfast – It is unwise to laugh early in the morning, particularly before getting out of bed. There is an old saying that the woman who laughs before breakfast will cry before supper. Another version lingers in the jingle: Laugh before it’s light, [you’ll] cry before it’s night.

Avoiding eating while defecating – To eat or drink at the same time one urinates or defecates is very bad luck, and I have known children to be severely whipped when the mother caught them eating candy in the privy. The child who eats anything under such conditions is said to be “feedin’ the Devil an’ starvin’ God.”

Menstruating women can’t pickle cucumbers – It is generally believed that a menstruating woman can perform all of her ordinary household tasks save one she can’t pickle cucumbers. I have known women who laughed at most of the backwoods superstitions yet were convinced that there was something in this idea. One girl told me that she and her sister had tried it out repeatedly, and that the pickles prepared by a girl who was menstruating were always soft or flabby, never properly crisp.

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