These sayings and stories are taken from Shenandoah Voices: Folklore, Legends, and Traditions of the Valley by late Valley historian and author John Heatwole. I’ve found his accounts fascinating and very useful information for some of my American historicals.

Many early valley settlers, my ancestors among them, were Scots-Irish.  People from the British Isles tended to be superstitious.  Also prevalent here were Germans bringing with them the influence of the superstitious Pennsylvania-Dutch, so sayings, practices, and beliefs abounded in the valley and surrounding mountains.  Imagine the stories that came out of those remote, fog-shrouded hollows.  Some superstitions still persist today.

“If your right eye itches, you will soon be displeased, and if your left eye itches, you will soon be pleased.  If your right foot itches, you’ll soon walk on strange or unfamiliar ground, and if your left foot itches, you’ll soon walk in the graveyard.”~

“If you are out driving a wagon or buggy and a black cat crosses the road in front of you from right to left, it is a bad sign. If it crosses from the left to the right, there is no reason for concern.”~

"If you enter a house and leave it without sitting down it is bad luck.  Particularly if you leave by a different door than the one you entered."~

There was a magic spring in the Briery Branch area of Rockingham County.  A young woman went there, and with a mirror, looked over her shoulder into the water and saw the image of her future husband reflected on the surface.  She recognized him because of the hat he wore all the time.~

It's bad luck to dream about muddy water.  In some parts of the valley it's said that to dream of muddy water means a flood is on the way.~

While seated at a table for meals, you might accidentally drop one of your eating utensils.  If you drop a fork, it means that a man will soon come to the house.  If a knife is dropped, a woman will soon appear.~

Back in the mountains it was reported that if some ‘swept around you’ it was bad luck and you’d never get married.

'Jack-ma-lanterns' are described as well defined, sinister lights.  To quote one old timer: "'Ol folks used to tell 'bout jack-ma-lanterns that 'ud lead you you off at night.  back in those days there wasn't lights to guide a body ever'where like 'tis today.  If you started to go somewhere at night you'd try to spot a light in some neighbor's house and foller that."  Jack-ma-lanterns were known to lead people into thickets or swamps.  One way to avoid the lure of the faux lights was to turn your pockets inside out before starting on your journey.

More Than Human:  There was an old Pennsylvanian Dutch saying that was used when speaking of someone who was thought to be involved in the dark arts.  The old timers would say that he or she 'could do more than eat bread,' which must have meant that the person was taking part in something beyond the daily existence known to most people.

Precautions: Certain precautions could be taken to protect yourself and your family from the mischief of witches who were blamed for all manner of ills and misfortune.  Near the village of Jerome, in Shenandoah County, it was said that some people plugged up their keyholes to keep witches from entering their homes.~

A 'Dutch' lady in the Naked Creek area of Augusta County had a great fear of witches getting into her barn on Halloween and vexing the animals, so to ward off trouble she greased the corners of the barn every year on that Eve.  Supposedly witches entered the barn by the corners and the grease made them slide off.  This same woman was extremely concerned about witches preventing her butter from firming up, so she put needles in the churn before she began to make the butter.  Then she and her granddaughter would carefully count them out again when they paddled the butter out of the churn.  *I'd be more concerned about a missing needle myself.  

Apparently this woman wasn't the only Valley housewife to fear for her butter.  Another put a hot iron wedge in her churn.  An added practice to protect butter was to pour the cream into a trough and whip it vigorously.  It was thought that as the butter formed, the witch who had hexed it was also whipped.  An alternative practice was to put silver coins in the churn.

When a rifle wouldn't shoot straight, the problem was often attributed to a hex. Some early gunsmiths engraved a circular design called a 'witche's ring,' around the bore opening of the rifle.  Rifles that weren't protected with the ring could be put in jeopardy if their owners crossed someone who could loose evil upon them.  

A witch doctor could remove a spell from a rifle, or you could make a trip to Clamper Springs in the Hills of Judea. It was believed that the spring had magical properties, and that tow, the fiber of flax, wrapped around the end of the ramrod, dipped in the water, and then used to wipe out the barrel, would remove the hex and protect the rifle forever.

These are just a few examples of how to ward off the hexes.  Although witches were feared, most early valley residents regarded them as more of a nuisance than a source of all-out terror and the women blamed were tolerated-- depending on their social standing--or shunned, but no one suspected of witchcraft has been punished or executed in America since the early 18th century.  Sorcerers, however, were considered a source of unspeakable horror, to the point that few stories about them were even told, their names not spoken.  Rather like ‘he who shall not be named,’ from Harry Potter
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  1. Barbara Edwards // February 3, 2010 at 3:52 PM  

    What a great collection of superstitions. I grew up in New England and appreciate the flavor this gives to an area since we have similar beliefs.

  2. Beth Trissel // February 3, 2010 at 4:16 PM  

    Thanks Barbara. I'm sure these beliefs are shared in many parts of America.

  3. Judy // February 3, 2010 at 5:10 PM  

    Beth, Fascinating information. Some of my ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch so I was intereted in reading about them. Thanks for sharing the info. Amazing what you discover when you do research!

  4. Joanne // February 3, 2010 at 6:44 PM  

    Gorgeous pictures (thank your dh) and excellent post. Your blogs are always so interesting, Beth.

  5. Beth Trissel // February 3, 2010 at 6:46 PM  

    Thanks guys. I love this sort of research.

  6. Autumn Jordon // February 3, 2010 at 8:26 PM  

    I'm raised PA Dutch and as a child heard a few of these superstitions from my grandparents. Another--Itchy right right means you're going to receive money and left hand means you're going to pay out.

    Lots of fun reading this and beautiful pictures.

  7. Beth Trissel // February 3, 2010 at 8:41 PM  

    Thanks Autumn, and interesting about the hands.

  8. Scarlet Pumpernickel // February 3, 2010 at 8:45 PM  

    It's amazing, but we have many of th same superstitions here in Georgia with minor variations. Guess Georgians have roots as deep as Shenandoah!


  9. Joelle // February 3, 2010 at 8:48 PM  

    I drop silverware all the time. I guess I should be expecting lots of company at my door:) Thanks for the fun post.

  10. Barbara Monajem // February 3, 2010 at 9:40 PM  

    Great pics! And what an amazing bunch of superstitions. People can come up with some pretty weird stuff, that's for sure. Thanks, Beth.

  11. Beth Trissel // February 3, 2010 at 10:51 PM  

    They sure do.

  12. Caroline Clemmons // February 4, 2010 at 10:17 AM  

    Beth, I loved this blog post and the beautiful photos. Most of my family were Scot Irish except for one German/Austrian branch. I remember some of these superstitions from my maternal grandmother. The only time she ever became angry with me was once when I opened an umbrella inside the house. She told me bad luck would rain down on the house. But if you asked her if she was superstitious, she'd say no. In my opinion, these beliefs were so ingrained, that I don't think she even realized they were superstitions and not fact.