By Nancy Richmond
According to modern experts, a superstition is an irrational belief arising from fear or a lack of understanding. This belief may be held by a number of people, but is without foundation. It includes events that can be influenced by certain acts or circumstances that have no actual connection with them. Every culture has superstitions, and they are in fact often based on reasonable assumptions, such as ‘going barefoot in the moonlight can make you ill.’ A person could become ill from such behavior, but it is probably due to germs picked up from going barefoot, as opposed to the notion that moonlight causes sickness. Many of the early pioneers who moved into the Appalachian region of what is now Greenbrier County, West Virginia, conducted their lives by following the tales and taboos that they brought with them from their homelands. Some of their descendants today still cling to these superstitions and pass them on to their children.
Scottish immigrants thought that if the fish were not biting, it was necessary to throw a fellow fisherman into the water and pull him out as if he were a fish, in order to change their luck. They believed that deafness could be cured by pouring a potion of ant eggs, snails and vinegar into the ear, and that one apple should be left on each tree at the end of harvest in order to keep the Devil at bay. Appalachian midwives from Scotland taught young mothers that feeding their newborn baby a drop of ground up pulp from an ash tree would grant the child lifelong protection from witchcraft. Scottish justice stated that a thief could be found out by having a group of suspects dance around an upturned axe. When the axe fell over, its shaft would be pointing to the thief.
Irish pioneers brought with them the conviction that if a baby was born with its hands clenched, it would have a mean streak. If it was born with its hands open it would be kind and generous. Immigrants often placed a knife on the doorstep of a house where a birth had just taken place in order to prevent witches from entering and doing harm to the baby. To confuse the Devil, Irish settlers would dress a child in the clothes of the opposite sex. Some followed the custom until the children reached fourteen years of age. To find out which girl would be the first to marry in a village, they would conceal a single bean in a pea pod when preparing a communal meal. Whoever got the bean was destined to wed first. They also taught their children that fat from a bear if rubbed on the head of a person would cure baldness.
British colonists believed that ants were the reincarnation of children who died without being baptized, so it would bring bad fortune to anyone who destroyed an ant’s nest. They also believed that a girl could learn the identity of her future husband by placing an ash twig that had an even number of leaves under her blouse. The next man she met while out walking would be her husband. Another common British superstition was that a man could establish who he would marry by scattering ashes on a road on All Hallows Eve (Halloween). The first girl who followed the trail of ashes would become his wife. Church bells were rung when a member of the congregation died in order to drive away any evil spirits that were lured by the presence of the dead. If a black cat crossed your path, you would have bad luck and should turn back. English immigrants also thought that if a mother was called away from home and a babysitter could not be found, the mother could leave an open Bible to watch over her children while she was gone, and they would come to no harm.
According to German pioneers, an apple tree would be productive for many years if the first fruit of the season was eaten by a woman who had many children. Also, apples must always be cleaned before being eaten, or the Devil would appear. They believed that a person who was seriously ill could be cured by passing under a bramble arch, as the thorns would snag any evil spirits on the victim, allowing them to recover from their malady. German youth were taught that if a man wiped his hands on a girl’s apron, he would soon fall in love with her.
While it is fun to recall these and the numerous other superstitions that were held by our Appalachian ancestors, it is also important to remember that they doubtless contributed to the unique culture and heritage of the present day ‘Almost Heaven’ that we call home.