We hold our own: protecting hearth and home in the Appalachias 

Buffalo mountain, taken from my front door step.

Now you gotta remember that the people of Appalachia share one major thing with the Irish, superstition. Most of this was rooted in the folk magic traditions, while others have no explanation for it. It’s just what the old folks said to do. These superstitions were mainly on protecting oneself from harm, the evil eye, haints (troubled spirits), and the mischievous activities of the Wee folk.

Firstly, I’ll explain how black cats are treated in the mountains. Some folk see it as bad luck while other see it as good luck. So it seems to be a matter of preference. A lot of people still harm black cats, especially on Halloween, due to this superstition. My folks see them as a sign of good luck, but each family in these hills treat things differently.

Before protecting yourself or the house, the children came first as they were the most vulnerable; newly brought underneath Fate’s stare, ain’t no one want to tempt her. Yarrow (Squirrel’s tail as the Cherokee knew it) was hung at the head of a crib to drive away curses, witches and the evil eye.  A variation of this is done by driving a nail into the post of the crib. Milk with chamomile was also given to infants every night  for their first few months to protect from evil and to preserve their life till the next dawn. Back then they didn’t have much access to medical professionals and ain’t no one back then heard of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; they thought it the work of the Devil so they learned to bare arms against such and take precautions whenever necessary.

A bundle of oak, honey locust, and walnut bound by willow throngs was also placed either under the cradle or in with the babe for protection.

I was also told growing up, to never crochet a hat or footies for a baby until after it was born. They said it was bad luck but there weren’t any specifics as to what could happen. My mother also did the following with all her children: she’d let us roll off the bed or couch by ourselves without catching us. It was said to make us strong and protect us from an early death. I can’t say it didn’t work.

The old folks would also make a nail cross to hang in the nursery or on the cradle for protection. Some would also make a doll to sleep in the cradle for the first week, to act as a decoy should the wee folk be tempted to steal the child.

       Protecting oneself was just as complicated when it came to the superstitious hillfolk and wise workers. Some people had hard jobs that could likely kill them, such as working in the mines or mills. Working around them dangerous machines, Fate was definitely not to be tempted.

They would carry such items as an iron nail to protect from the activities of the Wee folk, dried leather beans for good luck and protection, and rabbit foot for good luck, among many others.

Knocking on wood when an ill event is mentioned was to advert any bad luck from affecting that event. If driving in a car, and someone mentions a wreck, you knock on glass to “save yer ass”.

The weather of these mountains are as unpredictable as all get out. They’d watch the trees and animals to determine the severity of the coming storm. They’d see if the critters were moving to higher ground away from the rivers, especially the Nolachucky, which predicted a flood. If the trees showed the back of their leaves long before storm clouds was spotted, you’d best expect some high mountain winds. Usually, when they showed their backs in the afternoon (bout 2-3pm) you could expect the storm to come in about 7pm.

Because of this unpredictable weather, folks turned to their faith and cunning, folk knowledge to protect themselves. Of course, they carried charms when the chance was right good for a brewing storm. Geranium petals will protect you from lightning, lightning struck wood gives power and protection to the one who carries it, and tapping a black stone against a white stone was said to protect you with a boundary that lightning can’t pierce.

In these mountains, tornadoes are rare due to the bowl made from the mountains and valleys that most of this region sits in, but they do sometimes come. When this happens, you’ll take a kitchen knife and drive it in the ground, blade upwards. You put it at the southwest corner or window of the house and folks’ said when the tornado comes the blade will slice it in half so it don’t harm your home. If it’s a bad one, you can do this on all sides of the house, lest you temp Fate.

Now ghosts were just as bad as the Wee folk, always causing a ruckus. Some dead folk die a bad death and try reaching out , but that don’t help the living none, just causes trouble cause they don’t know they dead and scaring folk.

An old North Carolina potato working was used to stop the haunting of a relative. But you gotta have an item that belonged to them. To stop the haunting, you get you a potato (unwashed and unpeeled) and cut it clean in half from top to bottom. Now you’re gonna hollow out a hole in each piece, big enough to hold the item but making sure the walls of “bowl” remain somewhat thick. Then you placed their item in the hole and shut the potato. Bind it shut with yarn or wire or nails. Anything on hand really, just make sure it stays shut. Then you take the potato to their grave and it’s thought the spirit will follow. Leave it there and the spirit will be bound the cemetery until they cross over and heal. This is was especially done when a suicide was committed in the home.

Basil hung over the windows and doors keeps ghost from entering and planting rue outside the home discourages ghost from visiting. Now in the mountains, we do welcome our Ancestors spirits. We’re close with our kin even after death. Ghost are people who ain’t yet figured that they’re dead or they haven’t moved on. They’re stuck. This is what you’re protecting from. Aunt Lou may have been a good hearted woman, but she dead and ain’t know it. All you can do is pray for her soul to join the family.

When going to the cemetery to visit, you always wana cover your head so nothing hops on your back on the way out. Some folk will even hold their breath when passing the graveyard so they don’t “breath ’em in”. Sounds silly, but that’s how folks were taught.

Now, in these mountains the only intruders ain’t ghost. So, to prevent people from breaking in or stealing anything, make you a bundle of plantain leaves and dry them out. Then get a wooden plate or saucer and with nails, hang it over the front door. Then you’ll hang the bung in front of the saucer or tape it to it. Which ever works with what you got. Do this while praying Psalms 23.

To protect yourself from curses or the evil eye, make a charm by tying up a lock of your hair, a a stick from your yard, an a clipped finger nail with red string and carry it in your pocket. You cannot be cursed as long as you have the charm on you. Lose it, however, and these items can be used against you. (The use of red string is fairly common in Appalachian Hoodoo, as well as red flannel, as it represents the life blood).

For the same reason as above, or to just keep others from throwing any kinda stuff your way, make a hole in a silver dime with a nail and wear it as a necklace, bracelet or anklet. It said if the silver turns black, someone’s been throwing at you but the dime caught it. You would obviously change it out then and burry the old one at the fork in the road.

Bells and wind chimes are methods of deterring ghost and Wee folk from disturbing your property. Another method is to hang up dried corn cobs  on the porch, but they were mostly hung in the barns to keep the Wee folk (the Cherokee called them the Nunnehi) from stealing or killing the livestock. This, wrapped in silk and pig fur, also protected against anyone putting witchcraft on the animals.

Picture found through google, photographer’s name not found

Back in the day, every house had a can of oil around to oil the doors and windows. Squeaky doors and such were thought to be invitations to troublesome spirits. I do figure there’s something to this cause when does a squeaky door not sound creepy?

Now everyone’s heard of the superstition on mirrors catching souls of the living and dead, and that if you break one itll being 7 years bad luck on you. Well, them old granny witches knew just how to stop that, cause no good folk could afford that much bad luck in these mountains. So to break the 7 years bad luck curse, you’ve got to take the largest broken piece to the nearest cemetery and at the stroke of midnight touch it to the oldest headstone and the curse will be broken.

Another thing you’ll notice, which I have in my travels, is that the only places you’ll see Boston ferns and English Ivy growing by the doors is in the East of the United States. More so near the Appalachian Mountain range. Nearly one on every porch in the summer. In the winter, folks keep ’em indoors and nurse them thorough out the winter months. Ferns (including the wild ones from the mountains) and ivy were thought to protect the house from being tricked and the family from being cursed. But, if an animal eats any of the plant, they’d say a curse was already in effect.

Now, we may be some superstitious folk, and I could go on about this for days, but we hold our own, either by the Creator Upstairs, by Mamaw who passed a while ago, and by our own stubborn ways.

The Appalachian region has always been dealt a rough hand: with shitty health care, poverty in most homes, the crime rate continuously rising and urban expansion; all that paired with what the rest of the country thinks of us. We may be under Fates gaze, we may be poor, we may not go to the altar every Sunday they’re open, but we know what’s good for us. We keep Outlanders at an arms length, but hold most as close as we can. We’re stubborn, with not-so-common sense, and we may not have all our marbles, but we hold our own.

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Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Buck) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable melungeon woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather, also Melungeon, who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia; Doctoring the Devil: Notebooks of an Appalachian Conjure Man; and the Conjure Cards deck, all available for order and preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below: Littlechicagoconjure@yahoo.com

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