Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Appalachian Superstitions

The following blog was a guest post for "The Bookish Owl."

GUEST POST: Appalachian Superstitions by Rebecca D. Elswick 

Posted by thebookishowl on in Guest Posts
Superstition has always been a fascinating topic for me because of the abundance of them in the Philippines. In Tagalog, we call them “pamahiin” and it has been a constant source of laughter especially when my elders scold me and use pamahiin as their reason.
Let’s welcome Rebecca to the Owl with her very interesting topic; Appalachian Superstitions. 

Screen shot 2013-07-07 at 10.54.31 AMI am a child of central Appalachia, part of the oldest mountain range in North America. I grew up with the lush mountain forests as my playground, and small town life taught me a strong sense of place and a great love for and pride in my heritage. My Appalachian legacy includes its folktales, legends, superstitions, and traditional stories.

In my corner of Appalachia where coal is mined from the mountains, many people, including my family, claim Ulster-Scots, later called Scotch-Irish, as their ancestry. The pale complexion, red hair, and blue eyes are prevalent in this region. Other traits attributed to this heritage are the Appalachian peoples’ religious fervor, clannish behavior and the fierce almost feudal behavior of protecting the family, and of course, the love of moonshine ( liquor made from corn) that came about because of their inherited love of the  Scotsman’s’ and Irishman’s’ love of whiskey. This American product is even more potent in its effect than true Scotch or Irish whiskey.

Much of our language and many of our rich traditions and superstitions are traceable to this ancestry. The term “hillbilly” often applied to the people of this region, may be Scottish in origin. “Hill” comes from the Scottish “hill dwellers” and the Scottish word “billies” meaning “fine fellow”.

For all their staunch self-sufficiency and love of independence, the Scotch-Irish pioneers had within them vestiges of medieval superstition and fear. They believed in fairies, goblins and ghosts and these beliefs crossed the Atlantic with them. Many of our superstitions in Appalachia came with our Scotch-Irish ancestors. Some of them have become so engrained in our culture that we no longer think of them as coming from “somewhere else”.

As a writer, I have incorporated my Scotch-Irish heritage into my writing. People are fascinated by mystery, and what better way to add a bit of mystery to a story than by giving a character a Scotch-Irish background with a belief in the “old-ways” or the ability to speak to spirits or concoct healing remedies from the mountain plants? In my novel, Mama’s Shoes, the main character, Sylvia, is delivered by an old mountain granny woman. Sylvia’s mother had numerous pregnancies, but every child died at birth, even though they were delivered by the coal camp’s doctor. When she becomes pregnant late in life, she seeks out the old mountain midwife that many call a witch, and her daughter lives.

Here are some superstitions from my corner of Appalachia that are Scotch-Irish in origin. I grew up hearing many of them from my grandparents, and my mother and father were well versed in what they considered words of wisdom and caution about the fairies or wee-folk, ghosts, banshees, etc. that are part of our Appalachian culture by way of Scotland and Ireland.

If a black cat crosses your path it will bring you bad luck. Made an X in the air to ward off the bad luck.
It is unlucky to look back after starting out.

Whoever kills a robin redbreast will never have good luck, even if they lived to be a thousand years old.

If one should see a snake, rat or mouse while journeying, then one might as well turn back for no good will come out of the trip.

The shoe of a horse or an ass nailed to the doorpost will bring good luck. But the shoe must be found, not given in order to bring good luck.

If you want a person to win at cards, put a crooked pin in his coat.

When a person sneezes, exclaim, “God Bless You” as a protection against evil spirits, meaning thereby fairies.

Do not open an umbrella in the house, or put new shoes on a table, both actions bring bad luck.

It’s bad luck to bring a shovel into the house because it is a grave tool.

Death comes in threes. Two more deaths will follow the first one.

If anyone stumbles at a grave it is considered a bad omen. If you fall and touch the ground you will most likely die by the end of the year.

When a swarm of bees suddenly quits the hive it is a sign that death is hovering near the house.

When the dead are carried out of the house they must go FEET FIRST so that their souls cannot find their way back in!

When a bird comes in the house, it means Death.

If you see an owl in the daytime, there is going to be a death.

NEVER give a gift to anyone that has a cutting edge such as a knife. The recipient must pay the giver at  least a penny or their friendship will be “cut”.

Bury a jar of nails by your doorstep to keep out evil.

If you go around the wrong side of a pole, you’ll be disappointed.

The Scottish cook knew to never throw away a remnant of bread dough or oatmeal cake. The leftover dough was made into small cakes for children or else there would be bad luck. Even better was to punch a hole into the dough. This is the origin of doughnuts. The hole in the center was meant to keep evil spirits away.

If a knife falls, it means a man is coming. If it’s a spoon, a woman is coming. If it’s a fork that falls, it could be either a man or a woman.

If your left hand itches, it means you will receive money. If your right hand itches, it means you will make a new friend; and if your nose itches, it means either someone is gossiping about you, or you’ll hear news. If the sole of your foot itches, you will walk on new ground.

You should never put on your own veil on the day of the wedding as this brings bad luck. For better fortune, have a happily married woman do the honors.
If you dream of death, it means there will be a birth in the family.


  1. I do believe in some superstitions and found this post to be very interesting, especially the last three listed superstitions. Thank you for sharing!

    1. You are very welcome! I love hearing a new supersition.

  2. Thanks for the very interesting post. I've always been interested in Appalachian culture, probably because my grandfather was from Buchtel, which kisses Appalachia, and my grandmother was from southern Ohio.

    I'm curious. Where did these superstitions come from? You said your ancestors, from Scotland and Ireland, but where did they get them? Were they always superstitious folk? And why?