Charles Kinney (top), fiddle maker and player, and Noah Kinney (bottom), hub cap banjo player and maker. These brothers were folk artists and musicians who spent their lives creating and reveling in Appalachian culture in Kentucky. They died six months apart in 1991.
I posted yesterday about some Appalachian Christmas traditions that have all but faded out of habit. Likewise, here are some outdated Appalachian superstitions about the holiday season we could all benefit from remembering. Source
Children born on January 6 are special and often develop powers for healing the sick.
Animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve as they did by the manger when Christ was born. They also talk during this time. However, it is bad luck to catch them speaking.
Water turns to wine at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is bad luck to taste it (how convenient).
Trees and plants bloom on Christmas Eve. (This legend is probably derived from the English legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, a thorn bush grown from the staff of Joseph of Armethea who fled to England after Christ’s crucifixion.)
If you sit under a pine tree on Christmas Day you can hear angels sing. But, beware! If you hear them, you’ll be on your way to heaven before next Christmas.
Breads and cakes baked on Christmas Day have special healing virtues. Some folks preserved them for use in curing illness during the coming year.
Christmas Day visits to neighbors’ houses require eating a piece of stack cake or mince pie to insure good luck. Visits from twelve neighbors insure good luck for the whole year – and certainly bring a lot of people closer together.
It is bad luck for a cat to meow on Christmas Day. If it does, evil spirits will visit every day during the coming year.
Coals and ashes from the Christmas fire should never be thrown out that day, and no coal of fire or light should be given away. (The Druids believed that each individual coal represented the spirit of a dearly departed kinsman and that they protected the home during the Yule season.)
A crowing cock on Christmas Eve scares away evil spirits. Shooting off guns and fireworks also works.
Angels are so busy celebrating the birth of Christ that one hour before Christmas the gates of heaven are left unattended. Anyone passing over at this hour has a good chance of sneaking into heaven without having to give account.
To hear the chirp of a cricket on the hearth is a good luck omen for the coming year.
Eating an apple as the clock strikes midnight brings good health.
Single girls who visit the hog pen at midnight on Christmas Eve can find out the kind of man they’ll marry. If an old hog grunts first, she will marry an old man. If a shoat grunts first, her husband will be young and handsome.
Christmas Day dawns an hour earlier than normal causing elder, poke, and other plants to bud and sprout. Then, the earth is again plunged into darkness and the plants wilt until spring.
Bees hum from dusk until dawn on Old Christmas (January 6). Some say they sing the hundredth Psalm, come out of the hive at midnight, and swarm as they do in summer.
Christmas Day weather forecasts the kind of weather we’ll have for the rest of the year: a warm Christmas foretells a cold Easter; a green Christmas, a white Easter; a windy Christmas means a good corn crop.
Christmas trees must never be removed before January 2; they must be down before January 6 or bad luck will follow. (Probably a result of past conflicts between Old and New Christmas.)
Stumpwater, that is water that has collected in the hollow bowl of a tree stump, is an interesting part of folk materia medica. Its use can be found throughout the Ozarks and the Appalachians, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other cultures were to use the mystical substance as well. Stumpwater is mostly connected to the healing of certain dermatological issues like warts, rashes, and sometimes even freckles. But the water has also been used in the making of herbal infusions. The idea being that the stumpwater has more power than regular water because it is elevated above the rest of the land.
Vance Randolph mentions stumpwater several times in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore,” here are a few quotes:
“The skin disease called tetter is treated with spunk water or stump water simply rain water which happens to be retained in a hollow stump.”
“When a hillman tries to remove warts by applying stump water he repeats this formula: Stump water, stump water, Kill these — warts! The dash represents the number of warts that the patient has, and it is essential to state this number correctly. If a man says six when he has only five warts, the warts will not be cured, and another one will appear in a few days.”
“Most of the old-timers believe that a woman should never be bathed ‘all over,’ or her bedding completely changed, for nine days after the child is born. Some say that the palms of a child’s hands should not be washed until the child is three days old to do so washes away the infant’s luck, particularly in financial matters. It is always best to bathe a new baby’s head with stump water; if ordinary water is used, the child is likely to be prematurely bald when it grows up.”
One can say that most of the lore behind stumpwater likely came into the Ozarks from the Appalachian people. A similar wart-cure can be found in the book “A Tennessee Folklore Sampler” by Ted Olson and Anthony P. Cavender:
“To remove a wart go to an old hollow stump that contains water and wash the hands or warts in the stump water. After doing this, walk home without looking back and the wart will go away.”
A few more Appalachian uses of stumpwater come from the wonderful book “Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia” by Anthony Cavender:
“To treat and prevent pimples and blackheads, the face was washed with buttermilk, a solution of Epsom salts or soda, human urine, stumpwater (water collected in a tree cavity or stump, also called ‘spunkwater’), a decoction made from witch hazel or ratsbane leaves, or dew of the first day in May.”
“Stumpwater, buttermilk, dew of the first fay in May, and a cow manure facial also were used to remove freckles.”
“Southern Appalachian folk medicine is abundant with beliefs about contracting and removing warts. Some of the more frequently mentioned naturalistic remedies were rubbing warts with castor oil, a chicken gizzard, a slice of Irish potato, bean leaves, or stumpwater and inserting a hot needle into the warts.”
In my last post on the interactions between white and Native medicines I mentioned the use of stumpwater as a practice shared by both the white and Cherokee communities. Who gave the practice to whom is still debatable, but the fact remains that both communities considered stumpwater as an important part of the materia medica. Frans M. Olbrechts, in “The Swimmer Manuscript” mentions a Cherokee medicine man who only used water in healing:
“Spencer Bird, an old medicine man, now dead, used to rely on the sole purifying power of water. The informant who told me this vaguely hinted at the probability of the water being some ‘special water,’ such as that scooped out of a stump (‘stump water’) or even out of the stump of a lightning-struck tree.”
The use of stumpwater bears some semblance to other folk medicines such as the use of certain “flying” plants, meaning plants that are growing out of trees, or rock faces, that have never touched the ground. The power here is that the “flying” plant has some mystical connection to the sky, and is therefore given an added potency as a medicine or magical item. A common example of this idea is the mistletoe plant, which has been considered a mystical or magical plat partially because it hangs in the air without touching the ground. There’s a tradition throughout the Ozarks and Appalachians (and one can see the original belief throughout Europe) that the mistletoe will only be effective in protecting the home when it is cut and never allowed to touch the ground. We can see the same concept with the stumpwater, the idea here being that the water fell from the sky and hangs in the air, not touching the ground. The power of the stumpwater then isn’t in the chemical makeup of the water itself, but in the fact that it has been given a magical quality by being set apart from other puddles, creeks, and water sources.
The Appalachian or Mountain Dulcimer is the core instrument of Appalachia. Its origins date back to the late 1800s, but the instrument gained most of its popularity in the 1950s folk revival through the playing of Jean Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky (pictured top).
Second, Jean Schilling, well-known Dulcimer player and producer of the first Dulcimer festival, The Cosby Dulcimer Convention, in Cosby Tennessee.
Third, Elaine Irwin Meter with “the most beautiful dulcimer ever viewed.”
Fourth, George Allen Johnson (front), dulcimer maker and player.
Fifth, Mrs. Carrico with the family dulcimer (that has no fingerboard).
Last, Earl Mullins playing his mother Dora’s dulcimer with a mule-tail bow.
Day 75: Cures and Remedies: from Arthritis to Croup
Harley Carpenter holds a yellowroot plant he has just pulled up from a stream bank near his home.
Here’s the first part of some traditional Appalachian cures and remedies listed in “Foxfire One”. NOTE that all cures and remedies using turpentine, kerosene, pokeweed, and sulfur are not recommended as these items are toxic.
ARTHRITIS Drink a mixture of honey, vinegar, and moonshine. Make a tea from either the seeds or leaves of alfalfa. Drink powdered rhubarb dissolved in white whiskey. A magnet draws it out of the body.
ASTHMA In one pint of gin, place several pieces of the heartwood of a pine tree. Leave them in the gin until they turn brown. Then take one teaspoonful of the mixture twice a day. Suck salty water up your nose. Smoke or sniff rabbit tobacco. Swallow a handful of spider webs rolled into a ball. Keep a Chihuahua dog around the house. Smoke strong tobacco until you choke. Drill a hole in a black oak or sourwood tree just above the head of the victim, and put a lock of his hair in the hole. When he passes that spot in height, he will be cured. (Another person told us that if the person died, the tree would also.) Drink a mixture of honey, lemon juice, and whiskey, using about a tablespoon of each. Gather leaves from ginseng, dry and powder them. Put the powder in a pan, place a hot coal on top of it, and inhale the smoke.
Harv Reid with one of the ginseng plants from the patch near his home.
BLEEDING Place a spider web across the wound. Apply a poultice of spirit turpentine and brown sugar to the wound. Apply lamp black directly to the wound. Use a mixture of soot from the chimney and lard. If the cut is small, wet a cigarette paper and place this over it. Use kerosene oil, but be careful not to add too much or it will blister the skin. Use pine resin.
BLOOD—BUILDERS When the sap is up, take the green bark of the wild cherry and boil it to make tea. Take leaves of the lady’s slipper, dry them, and beat them to a powder (you can wrap them in a rag to do this). Put this powder into a can, add water, let sit, and then give a spoonful three times a day. Take the young leaves of the poke plant, parboil them, season, fry, and then eat several “messes.” Make sassafras tea, using the roots of the plant. Put some yellowroot in a quart can of whiskey, and let the root soak it up. Add some cherry bark for flavor.
BROKEN ARM Make a mixture of red clay and water. Put splints on each side of the arm and plaster it up with the clay. When the clay dries, put the arm in a sling.
BURNS Put hot coals on the burned place and pour water over them. The steam will draw the fire out. Powder hot coals and put this warm powder on the burn. Boil chestnut leaves and place the resulting ooze on the burn. Take table salt and dissolve it in warm water. Wrap the burn in gauze and keep it constantly warm and moist with applications of the salt water. Bind castor oil and egg whites around the wound with a clean cloth. The scrapings of a raw white potato will draw the fire. Linseed oil will draw the fire out. Scrape the inside of a white potato. Put the scrapings on the burn and leave them there until they turn black and the sore turns white. Then add a salve made of talcum powder and Vaseline. If the person has never seen his father, he can draw the fire by blowing on the burn. Use lard and flour. Use a mixure of Sloan’s salve and Japanese oil and petroleum jelly. Put axle grease on the burned area.
CHEST CONGESTION Make a poultice of kerosene, turpentine, and pure lard (the latter prevents blistering). Use wool cloth soaked with the mixture. Place cheesecloth on chest for protection, and then add the wool poultice. Heat mutton tallow and apply it directly to chest. Place a large quantity of rock candy in a little white whiskey to make a thick syrup. Take a few spoonfuls of this several times a day. Apply a mixture of camphor, mutton tallow, soot, pine tar, turpentine, and lard to chest. Make an onion poultice by roasting an onion, then wrapping it in spun-wool rags and beating it so that the onion juice soaks the rags well. Apply these rags to chest. Eat raw honey. Render the fat of a polecat. Eat two or three spoonfuls. This brings up the phlegm. Mix up hog lard, turpentine, and kerosene. Rub it on chest. Rub groundhog oil and goose oil on chest. Then cover with a hot flannel cloth. Wear a flannel shirt with turpentine and lard on it all winter.
COLDS Make a tea from the leaves of boneset. Drink the tea when it has cooled. It will make you sick if taken hot. Leaves of this plant may also be cured out and saved for use in teas during the winter months. Make a tea from powdered ginger, or ground up ginger roots. Do not boil the tea, but add the powdered root to a cup of hot water and drink. Add honey and whiskey, if desired. Boil pine needles to make a strong tea. Take as much powdered quinine as will stay on the blade of a knife, add to water, and drink. Parch red pepper in front of a fire. Powder it, cook it in a tea, and add pure white corn liquor. Put goose-grease salve on chest. Drink lamb’s tongue and whiskey tea. Drink whiskey and honey mixed. Drink red pepper tea. Eat onions roasted in ashes (good for children). Eat a mixture of honey and vinegar. Make a tea by putting some pine top needles and boneset in boiling water. You can sweeten it with honey or syrup. Drink tea made from wintergreen fern. Make a combination tea from boneset leaves and horsemint leaves. Take a three-pound can of pine twigs and rabbit tobacco. Boil together and strain. Drink some every three hours, taking no more than one full juice glass within a twelve-hour period. Drink some of the brine from kraut put up in churn jars. It makes you thirsty, and you drink lots of water.
COLIC Tie an asafetida bag around a baby’s neck for six months to keep away six months’ colic. Take one pinch of soda in a spoon of water. Drink Sampson’s snake root tea. Feed the baby breast milk with one drop of kerosene or one drop of asafetida in it. Chew some camel root and swallow the juice. Massage stomach lightly with warm towels or warm castor oil. Chew ginseng root. Drink some asafetida and whiskey mixed in milk or water. Boil two or three roots of ginseng in a pint of water, then strain and drink.
CONSTIPATION Gather the roots of mayapple, cut out the joints, and dry the middle of the root. Place in a cloth and beat to a powder. Add a few drops of castor oil and roll into pills. They keep very well. You can also put a pinch of powder in food, or put in some syrup.
COUGH Mix one teaspoon of white whiskey with a pinch of sugar, heat over a fire, and drink. Eat a mixture of honey and vinegar. Put some ground ginger from the store in a saucer and add a little sugar. Put it on the tongue just before bedtime. It burns the throat and most of the time will stop coughs. Take some rock candy with tea. Take a teacup of roots and stems of red horsemint, boil in a pint of water for two or three minutes, strain, and drink. Dissolve four sticks of horehound candy in a pint of whiskey and take a couple of spoonfuls a day. This is also good for TB. Boil one cup of wild cherry bark in a pint of water. Add some syrup and cook until it gets thick. Make a cough syrup using the roots of about six lion’s-tongue plants. Boil them in about a teacup of water, sweeten with syrup, then simmer until thick. Take a spoonful a few times a day until your cough is gone. Boil a handful of mullen roots and leaves in a pint of water to make a light tea. Add sugar or syrup to sweeten. Take only a spoonful at a time. Parch leaves of rat’s vein and grind them to a powder. Put a pinch on your hand and snort it. Make a cough syrup by boiling a handful each of wild cherry bark, black gum bark, and whole rat’s vein plants in a half a gallon of water. Simmer for one to two hours; strain, add one pint of sugar, and boil again until it makes a thin syrup.
CRAMPS To cure cramps in the feet, turn your shoes upside down before going to bed.
CROUP Squeeze the juice out of a roasted onion and drink. Render out some mutton tallow, add beeswax to this, and place it on the back underneath the victim’s shirt. Add a little vinegar, lemon, or onion to honey and eat. Put a drop of turpentine in a spoonful of sugar and eat. Drink a thick syrup made of onion juice and honey. For a baby pour a mixture of turpentine and white whiskey into a saucer and set it afire. Hold the baby over the smoke until he breathes it deeply. This loosens him up. Take homemade lard, turpentine, and kerosene and make a poultice which is bound in a wool cloth over the chest and around the neck. Put some groundhog oil on some hot flannel rags and place the rags on the child’s chest. Boil an onion, some turpentine, and some lard together. Pour the juice on a cloth and put it on the chest. Get a pine knot, split it up fine, and light it. Hold fat meat over the fire. Take the resin and fat to cure the cough.