Old Wives Tales From the Ozarks, Appalachia, and the Deep South
Look What the Cat Dragged In...
Did your grandmother ever tell you that if your ears were ringing it meant someone was talking about you? How about when you spilled the salt and were told to throw some over your left shoulder to get rid of the bad luck? There's a name for these seemingly silly superstitions...they are called Old Wives Tales and can be found in many places in the United States including the Appalachian region, the Ozarks, as well as in the Deep South. These Old Wives Tales came from a period in time and places in the U.S. where people had it hard. Daily life was about survival...often there were struggles with disease and poverty. Often people would turn to "magical" or superstitious beliefs to explain away some of the bad or simply strange occurrences in life.
Some of these Old Wives Tales have spread out across the entire country and some folks still believe in them today. Maybe you've even heard a few of these from your grandma or mama. Here are some of the more interesting Old Wives Tales I have found, broken down by categories such as household chores, bad luck/curses, etc.
Old Wives Tales About Household Chores/Objects
If you drop your dishrag while doing the dishes, this means that a dirty visitor will be arriving soon. If it falls in a wad, it will definitely be a woman. If it falls spread out, it will be a man.
Of course an itchy nose also means poor or needy company is coming, but an itchy eye means your luck is about to change. Left eye—bad luck, and the right eye—good luck.
Many of us have heard that it is bad luck to spill the salt at the table. People in the Ozarks and elsewhere would throw a bit of the spilled salt over their left shoulder in order to "take the cuss off". Some would say that if the salt was spilled, it meant that a fight would break out amongst the family before the day ended. Some of the older folks would say the only way to avoid this is to pour water over the spilled salt. Salt was a big portent for bad or good luck in Old Wives Tales. I believe this is because it was so accessible and because it is tied to older myths and superstitions from other countries (i.e. salt has been used to ward off evil and witches since the Dark Ages, etc.) They also say it is bad luck to spill the pepper!
There were also a lot of Old Wives Tales about bread. Often, bread was the only thing mountainous people had to eat, so you can imagine why such importance was placed on the bread. Burning the bread could mean different things depending on the time of day the bread was burnt. For example, if a woman burnt the bread before breakfast, it meant that her husband would be hungry all day (is this because the bread was burnt and he wouldn't eat it?) Also, if you cut cornbread, this will bring bad luck; you should always break the cornbread. My husband tells our daughter that if she eats the bread crust it will make her eyes even browner...this is similar to the Old Wives Tales about eating crusts of bread to make one's hair curlier.
When you were a kid, did you ever hear someone say, "step on the crack and break your mama's back?" This too is an Old Wives Tale from the Ozarks though it can vary from person to person and from region to region. Some would say that the opposite was true—that if a kid didn't step on the cracks that he would have bad luck or troubles at school that day.
There's an Old Wives Tale that when a woman starts stirring batter for a cake, she must always stir in the same direction or else it will ruin the cake/dish. Also, the same person must start and finish the job.
It is also interesting to note that many women in the Ozarks would observe the phases of the moon before trying to make or ferment different things for household use. If the moon was waning, one should never try to make cider or wine as it will spoil every time. Using the phases of the moon in household chores or cooking is something that dates back to at least Medieval times. This has also been said to be a large part of "witchcraft" in modern times.
Old Wives Tales About Pregnancy and Childbirth
Just as there are many Old Wives Tales circulating one's health, there are even more for women's reproductive health. Pregnancy and childbirth were a big deal for Mountain and Southern folk, as many women would have multiple children back in the day. And because these people were poor and technology was so far behind the times, these women would look mostly to midwives to aid them in their pregnancy and births. These midwives were called granny-women.
Many different teas could be drank to produce an abortion of a baby, if the women so needed it. Cedar-berry tea was one; chamomile another. Different teas were also given to ease the pain of menstruation or to aid in returning the flow. These recipes were provided by granny-women or "yarb doctors" (folk doctors or herbal medicine men of sorts). A tea made of blackberry root was said to be used to make a labor and delivery move along faster.
My grandmother used to say to keep the household cat away from the baby, as he might smother the baby while trying to "steal the milk" out of the baby's breath/mouth. Our cat never tried to do this to our baby, and researching I've found this is an Old Wives Tale that has never been proven to be true.
Guessing the sex of baby while in utero—there are Old Wives Tales that say if one is to hold a necklace over the belly and let it swing one way or another, the way in which it swings will tell the sex of the baby. Left for a boy, right for a girl. The physical way in which a woman carries the baby should tell the sex of the baby. This is a common belief still said today in almost every part of the country: if the woman carries mostly in the hips and back, it will be a girl. If the woman carries all in the front (in the belly), it will be a boy. I have found this Old Wives Tale to actually be true in the case of my two children and how I carried each of them. How about you?
Depending on what day of the week the child is born might tell its family its characteristics or future. This is similar to zodiacal signs or moon signs:
Monday's child is fair of face
Tuesday's child is full of grace
Wednesday's child has far to go
Thursday's child is full of woe
Friday's child is loving and giving
Saturday's child must work for a living.
A child that is born on a Sabbath day is blithe and bonnie and rich and gay.
Superstitions, Bad Luck, and Curses
Just as there were portents of good luck and health, there are also Old Wives Tales about curses and bad luck. Many people have heard that if you break a mirror, you will have seven years of bad luck...well this is just one of the many things one can do to curse oneself.
If you are walking along and pick up a black button, it is believed to be cursed and will bring you bad luck. If a black cat crosses your path, you will have bad luck (conversely if it's a white cat, you will have good luck!) If you drop your comb, put your left foot over it right away to dispel bad luck coming your way.
Birds are a huge omen in many Old Wives Tales. If any bird is heard knocking on a window or windowpane, it means death is sure to come to the household. If a turtledove flies into the house, someone will die soon. Also, if an owl flies into the house...this is the worst of all. I love owls but have found in my experience when they show up unexpectedly someone close by usually dies. This happened twice when a screech owl showed up at our home, each time one of our neighbors died within the month.
Saying anything backwards is considered to be evil by the Old Wives Tales, particularly any prayers like The Lord's Prayer. It will bring on bad luck or even curses, and has long been associated with witchcraft in the old country.
One is never to walk under a ladder, as this will bring bad luck. Also, never open an umbrella inside of the house.
My Video on Old Wives Tales
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Nicole Canfield