Appalachian religion is a hard thing to decipher, and the more you try to untangle the different associations of Regular, Old Regular, Old-Time Regular, Old Primitive, Old-Time Regular Primitive, Old-Time Regular Particular Primitive Baptists, etc., it gets very confusing. And that’s just the Baptists, nevermind the old circuit churches, the various forms of Pentecostalism, the mainline churches that made inroads there, the Mennonites and other Anabaptists and the religious associations that sociologists have only been able to label “mountain churches.” The hillbillies are not as doctrinally unified as a quick glance would have you believe.

But there is one area where you do see some homogeneity, and that’s in folk superstitions. And while it may be funny to point to some of them and think they are the imagination of isolated hillbillies, from personal experience I can attest that these beliefs were exported from the mountains to the Gulf South, though by my lifetime they were mostly mocked by old and young alike.

Here are a few examples:

If a bird flies in the house, death follows.

Hang your boots on the wall with toes pointed toward the wall is a sign of your death.

 If a rooster crows near the back door, company’s coming.

To keep the Devil away, throw salt over your left shoulder.

Never give a knife as a gift; it will cut friendship.

Misfortunes come in threes.

Small ears indicate a stingy personality.

If you rock a cradle empty, you will have babies a’plenty.

To take the last piece of pie, biscuit, or from a plate is a sign that the girl will be an old maid.

Marry in green; ashamed to be seen. 
Marry in brown; you’ll move into town. 
Marry in blue; you’ll always be true.
 Marry in yellow; ashamed of your fellow. 
Marry in black; you’ll wish yourself back.


You can chalk superstitions up to pagan syncretism or to acceptable forms of folk religion, but at their core — while one may be tempted to dismiss them as “old wives tales” — superstitions are religious beliefs. It’s fairly obvious how practices that supposedly ward off witches, hobgoblins and ghosts have religious connections, but even folks customs related to “luck” have their spiritual aspect. While mountain folk may not have had the classical education of their European forebears, what are the practices for luck (a vaguely defined concept at best) other than ways to avoid the Fates? The people throwing a pinch of salt over their shoulders may not have believed three Greek crones with beards were hanging over them, planning their eventual demise, but many of these practices were certainly an attempt to steer clear of an unavoidable predestination to a certain end (or, in some cases, to encourage it). Why else would you cover your mouth and say the Lord’s Prayer after sneezing other than to prevent your soul from leaking out?

And while most people have dismissed these practices as silly (many of them are silly), they still linger in the American subconscious, not because people are afraid of witches and ghosts anymore, but because — even in a culture that has gulped down postmodernism like cheap beer — there is a great sense of fatalism these days. Just listen to the nightly news, and especially the news commentators. The difference is that, thanks to their skepticism, people don’t have anything to use to fight that feeling anymore.