Damn Near Mad

“Handsome,” is stray cat who likes to visit the

Recently, I have been comparing my upbringing with that of a friend’s. We grew up in vastly different environments on every level: economic, region, family structure, politics, etc. In doing so, I’ve been able to see just how “primitive” the majority of folks would view the way I was raised and all the superstitions my family upholds.

In response to odd, questioning looks I have had to answer the reasons behind knocking on wood, clapping with the heat lightning, why to avoid getting your shirt wet while washing dishes, who is coming based on the fork that dropped to the floor.

Superstition itself is a wiley thing. Man has always turned to the littlest of occurrences to see omens of the good and bad that are forthcoming. It is an entanglement that, as I have seen in my own experiences, helps us survive in many ways. For Appalachia, past and present, they have kept us from the possible dangers of haints, cured the stutters of children, eased the hands of the working man, and warned the family of impeding death or illness.

We always knew how to kept money coming to us, keep our animals from running away, and keep gossiping tongues from wagging. Lord, what you can do with a bit of butter, salt, and fire!

My friend also grew up in Appalachia, but their home life wasn’t rooted into the hills. By this I mean, they live here, but they’ve never had deep ties with the culture. They grew up more than well off, so well off my childhood has brought them to tears. Which surprised me as I never thought those things, like going hungry, flushing the toilet with a wire hanger, or digging up roots for money was weird or foreign to others. I just assumed everyone got to those points in life every once in awhile when money was hard and stuff.

This friend has never caught minnows with their hands, tasted a cooked crawfish fresh from the creek, or accidentally smashed into a cow patty while rolling down a hill.

It has restored some pride and honor into my bones, that my ancestors paved the way in some form or another for me to be the person I am today. I am not ashamed of my upbringing one bit. I’m not embarrassed of my “poverty” because it has taught me how to live with things that would drive most to the edge of sanity. I know which roots to eat, how to hunt, fish, and grow my own food. Most importantly I know how much is enough for myself and my family to get by.

But how does superstition and old wives tales come into play with this?

Because they have guided Appalachian Americans and their ancestors for hundreds of years to millennia in these hills. The old Irish would not pick up a comb found on the ground as this was a bad omen connected with the banshee, a phantom who would come and scream to alarm that Death was coming to the home.

The Cherokee avoided eating animals from different realms on the same plate, such as fish and fowl, as this was belief to call disease to the community. If a rattlesnake had to be killed, there were certain ceremonies, songs, and precautions to be had to avoid the rattlesnakes from seeking the tribe out to kill someone to get even.

This is the story as I remember it being told to me when I was little by a storyteller at Sycamore Shoals. There a woman and man who lived in a cabin off on its own. While the kids were playing outside, the mother heard one of them scream so she rushed outside and found it was a rattlesnake that had frightened them. She then struck it with a stick and killed it. Her husband was out hunting and on his way home heard a wailing sound so he went to look. He found a den of rattlers with their mouths open and crying. They told him his own wife had that day killed their chief, the yellow rattlesnake and they were going to get revenge, a life for a life, by sending out the black rattlesnake to follow home with him to satisfy the natural law. Knowing it was true, he obliged. They planned for the the black rattlesnake to sit by the door of the home and wait for her to head out for a pail of water. When she did, the rattlesnake bit her and her husband remained with her as she died. After that the black rattlesnake taught him the songs and ceremonies needed should man kill one of them by accident, and also what should be done for a cure should one of them bite a man.

Whether our superstitions begin with dreams, off-shoots of other stories, or actual events doesn’t hold weight in their importance in our lives. They guide us in everything, advising what to do if a mare keeps miscarrying, to secure your daughter’s future as a good wife and housekeeper; to avert ill fortune and the evil eye, ward off disease from little babies, keep the crops from coming under the blight, how to gain your sweetheart and know when you’ll marry them too.

We never talk about car wrecks while driving or before setting out, we never speak ill of the dead, we always knock on wood at the mention of the possibility for an unfortunate event to visit the family, we never let the dead be taken our head first, and we always cross the digging tools over the grave of a loved one after burial.

As I’ve always heard, one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Incidentally, in every culture, superstition settles next to everything held at the center of our lives: family, food, shelter, health, money. Why chance it and tempt fate to move her hand?

Superstition is a two-sided blade: to us, they keep us safe and aware but in some regards they keep us from being free in our mind. We don’t like playing with chance or fate, because we know that the slightest event could tear our reality apart beyond repair in the form of death, disease, job loss, hunger, poverty, and natural disaster whether flood, mud slide, blizzard, or lightning. It’ll run you damn near mad sometimes.

From my experience I can tell you they help most of the time. Of course we are always under God’s will, but the mountaineer has always tried to conquer the biggest upheavals that he can. Just because he can’t or some don’t, doesn’t mean we stop trying and trying. Cause the old folks did it, so did their’s and those before them. It’s much like magic: why hold on to it if it doesn’t work or help nothing.

So in comparison to my friend, I regret nothing of my upbringing. I don’t wish I lived in a better household, with more money, or anything because it strengthened me, toughened the soles of my feet by stick and thorns on the forest floor, it made my hands gentle by the softest of baby chickens and ducks. It steer me to be responsible with helping babysit the neighborhood children, help my mother around the home, or caring for my grandmother.

My bones are stone from walking the mountains, and my blood is tinged red from beets and bloodroot. I was raised on front porch swings and morning biscuits, mud covered trucks, summer fishing, and gravel driveways. My roots are too deep for me to say I’m not who I am. My roots are too deep to free myself from the pain in my blood. And they’re far too deep to regret a thing of it.

Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) 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 woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather 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, available for 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

2 thoughts on “Damn Near Mad”

  1. These are the same superstitions and stories I grew up with. My mother was (is) well educated, a librarian when I was young, but her family were mountain people, her being the eldest of eight kids. Knock on wood, don’t kill a cricket (especially in the house), don’t speak ill of the dead… oh, so many. A lot of it actually slipped into my earlier writing, Sci-Fi at that, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Looking back, however….


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