The Dog Days in Appalachia

Growing up, the high-time of summer was a fun time, but it was tempered by the superstitions of my mother and grandmother. Between July 3rd and August 11 was the worst time there was throughout the year, when folks had their worst fortunes dealt to them.

During this time we weren’t allowed to go into the woods or go swimming unsupervised, because it was believed you would be more prone to drown and the tiniest cut would fester right mad, leading to a bad infection. We weren’t to go barefoot a lot during this time either. Just the other day, my mother fussed at me for still wearing shoes with a hole in the sole of them. “You’re gonna end up getting gangrene up your foot,” was her motherly retort.

It is called the dog days, according to local folklore because the frequency of mad dogs is higher now than any other time in the year. But originally it was because the Egyptians used the Dog Star, Sirius, as a weather beacon to foreshadow the flood season for the Nile river. The sun and moon in Appalachia were believed to have a large effect on the local weather. Hot days preceded bad thunderstorms, and the phases of the moon bring the fog and frost.

During the Dog Days, the star Sirius goes with the sun, giving more influence to the weather here. The days are long and hot, and often times dry. When they’re not, the mud is moist three feet deep after much rain and it’s humid as hell outside. This time of the year was never seen in a good light and is steeped with superstitions of evil and bad omens.

Meat spoils easier now than ever in the year, and many people believed they would get sick with fever and madness from eating center meats now. Wine and milk spoil and sour, the rate for rabies is believed to be higher, animals are languid, and the changes of catches diseases like tetanus are higher as well.

Any wound, no matter how small, will almost always become infected now, it will take much longer to heal, and will likely leave a scar in its place (in my family’s experience).

The Dog Days were also a time when bad haints or “harnts” were more active. It was always in July that mama would wash the walls with vinegar, water, and pinesol to clean them physically but to also lay a blessing. Folklore advises to wear your socks inside out, wear a cross around your neck, or wear your ball cap backwards to avert both the ill fortune and the haints.

Under the screams of midnight cicadas and the full moon with thunder sounding in the distance, the mountaineer always prepares his brood for the Dog Days. So brave these days as best you can if you’re as superstitious as I and my family are; cause one ounce of precaution is worth more than a pound of cure as I’ve always heard, and you’d be best to listen to these hills.


Culinary Conjure: Kitchen Magics of Appalachia

A lot of time in the development of Appalachian formulas was spent in the kitchen. As a result, we find kitchen tools used in these recipes, especially spoons, knives and forks. We also find food implemented in the process of carrying out charms and cures: a cross-cultural phenomenon where the diet of a people influences the folk magic of the culture, first influenced by the environment and economy.

The kitchen had a major effect on this work in Southern Appalachia. Not only was it the place where food was prepared and the family gathered: it was the health and life of the home where children were bandaged after small wounds and were neighbors gathered at the table to catch up.

You may recognize these meanings from the universal symbolism of the hearth, the kitchen of older days with a large pot hung over the fire.

Pots of beans and stew cooking over the fire place, occasionally stirred by a spoon and a careful hand. This was the place where mothers taught their daughters to cook and wash dishes. Their thinking of “woman’s place.” While many today cringe at that thought, women in the kitchen have shaped the folklore, songs, and history of man and his culture in one form or another all across the world.

The tools and food of the kitchen often find themselves in the local folklore, medicine, and magic of Southern Appalachia. Such things that were brought over from previous lands (Ireland being a primary source) already had a history of use in charms and cures in their motherland. From Ireland, we find such methods like using butter, potatoes, bread baked on certain days or by certain people (like a widow or a person named Cassidy). We also find the continued use of tools such as the fork in charms of protection and curing bewitchment, silver ladles or spoons in giving cures and conjuring rain, and knives being used in severing a disease or a pain from a person to enact a cure. The latter use of the knife is almost universal throughout Europe, condensed, so it seems, in Ireland, the Ukraine, England, France, Germany, and Poland; however, this use of the knife also shows up in the practices of Mexico, South America, Haiti, etc.

A lot of time was spent in the kitchen or at the hearth, with its rack and pot, with ashes and soot beds beneath the logs. Here it is easy to presume the sort of things mulled over or spelled during the cooking process, while washing dishing, or cleaning out the fireplace. There are many examples throughout Europe’s folk history where this place also became the center stage for certain omens, superstitions, and charms since the chimney was often considered a main opening through which evil spirits could gain entry.

These lines live on in Appalachia, in the omens of company told by a dropped piece of silverware: if it is a spoon, a woman is on the way; a fork, a man; if it is a knife it was said to be more than one person or trouble was coming to the home from outside folks. If a knife drops while a couple sits at the table, it foretells a argument between them. If embers jump out at you from the fire, someone’s going to cause trouble for the home. If the wood doesn’t light well, you can expect rain in the next day or so.

In regards to silverware, I explain in my book, silver is believed to have curative properties to it, a belief stemming back to Ireland and earlier to the wider regions of Europe. Silver was often steeped in glasses and drunk to cure certain afflictions. Some Appalachian cures and superstitions play on this: the first medicine a woman should take after childbirth should be administered to her by the husband with a silver spoon. Other times, silver’s protective qualities were used in dispelling diseases or curses: when you suspect the evil eye, touch a silver object (other times, iron is specified).

Copper is also famous throughout the Old and New Worlds for the belief that it helps with arthritis and also cures other afflictions such as rheumatism, body aches, and rashes. Nana used to always keep her copper bracelet on for arthritis and her heart issues. Besides a turn of wire, wearing a holes penny around the neck or in the shoe, copper was often sought and used in the form of vessels for cures: drink water from a copper vessel every evening before sunset to keep off aches in the body or joints. (*Hint* Get you some of those cute copper mugs they often sell at Ross or T.J. Maxx)

The attire that historically became associated with preparing food, washing dishes, baking or cooking was also employed in cures and charms: Mamaw’s famous apron! Vance Randolph in his works on the Ozarks often notes that a man’s gun or aim can be spelled by his wife by crossing the strings of her apron. Closer to home, Appalachian folklore and superstition provides ways of protection from death and ill fortune, most notably brought by an owl hooting close to the home. To shoo the owl off or get them to stop calling, a dish rag was smacked against the back of the front door or a corner of the apron was tied in the Three Holy Names of the Bible. Simultaneously done with either, the shoes of the residents were also turned upside down to avert any suspected disaster. In the realm of cures, any wound or cut rubbed with Mamaw’s apron was sure to heal soon without fester.

In my book, I go over how food has made itself a forever place in Appalachian culture. It shapes and is shaped by our people, always has and always will. Food is partook in religious ceremony, family reunions, weddings and funerals. We even bring food to the graveyards each year to honor our lost loved ones. Our cultural food shows up in our metaphors, sayings and humor (“Country as cornbread”, “Slower than Molasses”). Back in the day, nothing of importance was discussed on an empty stomach and just about everyone’s Mamaw knew when someone was hungry, even if they weren’t.

Therefore, it’s no wonder it fits so easily into the realm of folk magic and folk medicine. The old folks often ingested sassafras or willow tea as tonics in the spring, honey and lemon find themselves in Hot Totties when we’re ill, and the water used to boil potatoes, eggs, pasta, and greens also have their place. Older men, according to my grandmother, would carry a potato with them when they went out drinking. If need be, they’d take a bite of it and it would get rid of the smell of beer on their breath. (This was long before breathalyzer tests, so I do not recommend this, nor any of the cures before speaking to a medical professional.)

Although the diet of the Irish, contrary to popular belief, didn’t rely much on potatoes, we still find their use in curing worts and rashes, in curses and exorcisms. This usage of potatoes is found equally in Northern and Southern Appalachia and seem to stem from Ireland and Germany, seemingly independent of the other.

No matter where in human history you look, human culture has a main tap root, going through every kitchen in every time back to the first fire.

You probably won’t look at these tools and foods any differently than before, but I hope you enjoyed this post anyway!

Tell Me about the Granddaddies…

Everybody who has ever looked into Appalachian Folk Medicine and Magic has likely only ever heard that it was women who healed and worked roots either for the betterment or fall of those around them. They are the infamous “Grannies” that appear in each work on the subject in excess. But barely anyone hears about the men and their contributions or expertise in either of these fields of work.

The scale of yarb doctors who were women and those who were men are just about the same. Each gender works in their own realms, somewhat, in giving medicine for women’s issues and those deemed especially potent in men. Reaching up into Northern Appalachia, the tradition of transferring the gifts or wisdom is as varied as the family lines are.

Certain gifts or cures could, according to tradition, only be given to someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t a relative; while in other areas the person had to be a relative, they could be of the same sex, or it could be shared with only a certain number of people (the number three acts prominent here as well) due to the belief that the more people who knew of the cure, the more deluded it would become. Considering that the first is the one most often heard of, it is likely it was the most common: therefore leading to an close equal number of men and women who had the gifts or cures.

When the power or gift was given to someone else, the beliefs around what occurred to the original holder also varied: either they lost the gift forever at that point, or the new holder wouldn’t be able to effectively use it until after the giver has passed away.

These varied lines of transfer gave way to many men being able to work yarbs and charms for folks just the same as the women can. Other times these gifts and charms didn’t come from other people but from God at birth, a spirit in a dream, or some mundane event that was traumatic in nature. That’s how the good Lord works ain’t it? Gifts to those to heal the pain they are under? A barren woman gives birth to nations, a stuttering preacher shares the Word, the blind man sees more than everyone, etc.

Beliefs around strange or unique births were also to blame for these gifts, although they were sometimes seen as a curse: being born on particular days such as Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, New Years, Easter Sunday or Good Friday; this includes the conditions in which a person was born such as: a child born of a widow or one who’s never laid eyes on their father at all, a child born after the laboring mother has died, born at midnight, born with a caul or blue skin, the seventh son or the seventh son of a seventh son without a girl interfering in the lines, etc.

Beyond all these valid beliefs that were applied to both men and women, only the Grannies are remembered in large today. Because of this, I made it a point in my book to address the workers of this medicine and magic equally as women and men.

The men of Appalachia are stern, big hearted, and strong-boned. They compose our preachers and miners and blacksmiths and farmers. We need to remember the religio-social structure of Appalachia in regards to the stance of men and women who did this and the communal attitude toward both. The man was seen as being the head of the house, made in the image of God, and a leader of the flock, his family. In spite of this, the man of the mountains had his own fair share of sins and bad blood weighing on his back: domestic abuse, alcoholism, gambling, wars, drugs etc.

The women were seen as made in the image of Adam, needing their hair long as the Good book said, and to stay home and keep up house. However, that doesn’t mean all women willingly followed this (as you’ll soon seen in my book about my great great grandmother Myra and her dealings with the Baptist Church over a hat) nor did all men follow that grace way of head of house-hold.

My grandfather was in the middle with this: he was a Baptist preacher who had a gambling/drinking problem, yet he was fearful of God. But his fear of God didn’t match with that of my Nana who ran that household. But who can blame her? She was a daughter of Sadie Morgan (who I also speak of in my book). Papaw always said the one thing he feared most was a woman because she could bleed for seven days and never die.

So while not every man or woman subscribed to these predominant religio-gender roles they were born into, they still had a large effect on the shape of the culture at large. Today in Appalachia, it is still barely normalized for a woman to be a preacher or for a man to stay home with the kids. The former is believed to be against God’s word and the latter is called a puss. While it’s not what my family necessarily believes, it has to be accepted if we are to see things as they were and are in the study of Appalachian folk magic and medical practices.

Another vast difference between men and women workers in the Appalachian Hills were the communal opinions and reactions to both. I have yet to hear of a male folk healer in Appalachia who was questioned for his gifts by the Church, whereas there are many accounts of women being told to stop doing such things, change the way they do it, or the church clergy advising people to leave her be because she’s a witch in league with the Old Bastard himself. This wasn’t isolated to Appalachia, but was frequently done throughout the New World, the beliefs and attitudes stemming from Christian Europe.

The male folk healer or doctor was seen as being a channel for God’s power and the woman was a witch who got her gifts from laying with the Devil, the dead, or in some other hypocritical fashion even though both the former and the latter were sought for the same varied things from healing to cursing.

However, this didn’t always spare the men from prejudice or persecution. The men were primarily the ones who made up the occupation of Sin-Eater in Appalachia, a gift thought to be blasphemous. Stemming from the British Isles and Ireland, a sin-eater was a person who had the gift to take on the sins or suffering of the dead or dying for varied reasons: either for them to get into heaven by taking on their sins and “pawning their own souls” or simply to keep them from coming back as haints with unfinished business. This was accomplished by the sin-eater sitting down and eating a meal off of a plate that had been placed on the deceased’s chest or stomach.

It was believed the sin-eater, in taking on all these sins, became physically distorted, their minds twisted with overloads of sin and suffering. Other times, folks simply avoided them. After consuming the meal and receiving his payment he either left without speaking to anyone or he was literally run out of town into the woods, a practice that is possibly based on scripture when the sins of the people were cast upon a goat and driven into the wilderness, thereby taking with it the transgressions and suffering of the people (Leviticus 16:22). Aside from being chased out of town, male “witch-doctors” were often tried in court with charges of witchcraft.

Other times, especially in old Appalachia, the reputation of the doctor or healer was founded on racism in some cases. Let’s not pretend like it didn’t exist here because it did. Male, caucasian folk healers and workers were trusted more so than the African American doctor in some regions based simply on their skin color and scattered regional beliefs that they were in league with the Devil. A story was even created to explain the appearance of those deemed “Melungeon” where they are said to be children of the Devil, an old explanation for their dark skin. This simply added to the pre-existing attitudes by whites about them practicing devil worship in their “voodoo.” This story is recorded in God Bless the Devil: Liars’ Bench Tales by James R. Aswell covering Tennessee folklore.

The components of Appalachian superstition and magic come equally from women and men, without one being the wiser. The women knew their work with herbs and charms and the men knew their own share in signs, livestock and crops, boiled milk, and witch-doctoring. It seems this stigma of Appalachian Folk Magic and Medicine has been affected by the New Age empowerment of women which is mainly flawed in its perspective of the Grannies as sweet old women, doing some house chore waiting on you with a charm for anything.

While focusing on their role isn’t a bad thing in the least, let’s not let the Granddaddies be forgotten because of the preferred focus on grandmothers healing with Vic’s rub and onions, like a sweet old crone working her roots in a lonesome cabin or going down the road to deliver a baby. In reality, the men did just as much from faith healing at the altar, doctoring man and beast with herbs, and curing warts. And the grannies weren’t the sweet doves many outsiders think of them as; they were bush switches when you did wrong, shotguns when the drunken neighbor came by, iron beams during the storms of life; they were flour covered aprons and bleeding blisters alike. They were a soft whispered lullaby and a sharp order from across the house.

Them Granddaddies were religion and sin incarnate, the best example of the human condition: Head hung in suffering or grief with both hands raised to the Man-Upstairs. They were shovels and clods of dirt clung to work boots, fishing rods and war stories, words with extra syllables and tender, worn out hands.

The work of both was equally exhausting and laboring from ploughing the fields and climbing the mountain for ginseng to walking for days to help deliver a child for a simple payment of bread or drink. It broke a sweat and stole blood, it hurt your back and possibly laid you in bed for a day or so. While a lot of this is no longer done or needed due to modern medicine, it is still called upon when the crops won’t grow, when the milk won’t give, and when the price of health insurance skyrockets! So let’s make like the grannies and always know a thing or two; and live like the Granddaddies and always keep our hands high through hell or high water.

Most important, let’s not forget them.

*photos found on Pinterest*