Blog Post 28 – Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign…

Do I date myself by referencing that song in the title of this blog post?  Oh well…
I thought I’d wrap up the week with a few more examples of signs, tokens, and omens from American folklore.  We’ll be up in the mountains today, both the Appalachians and the Ozarks.
From the Appalachian History blog:

News Bees

“In both Appalachian and Ozarks folklore, news bees appear as omens to those wise enough to read them.”

News bees are not actually bees, but flower flies from the Syrphidae family.  They are marked with bands of black and yellow, much like bees, but are harmless.  They do look an awful lot like sweat bees, however, which can sting a person (though not as severely as other bees or wasps).

News bees, which also go by names like “sand hornets,” “sweat flies,” or “Russian hornets” derive their folk name from the belief that these hovering insects watch the events of humanity unfold, then fly off to deliver their news to others.  According to the folklore, “There are yellow news bees, which mean that good things are in the offing– it’s good luck if you can get one to perch on your finger–and black news bees, which warn of imminent death. The black news bees fly in the windows and out again, and fly straight for the nearest cemetery; they hover making a sound like a human being talking.” (Tabler, par.2)

From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore:

Some Animal Lore

“It is very generally believed that the appearance of an albino deer is a bad sign ; some hillfolk think it has something to do with witches’ work, others that it is an indication of disease among the deer, and that venison will be unwholesome for seven years” (p. 241)

“Groundhogs are hunted by boys with dogs, and young groundhogs are very good eating. But some of the old-timers frown on the modern practice of shooting groundhogs. They don’t mind if city sportsmen do it but often forbid their own children to shoot groundhogs, because it is supposed to bring bad luck” (p. 243)

Household Signs & Omens

“The Ozark housewife seldom begins to make a garment on Friday never unless she is sure that she can finish it the same day. Many a mountain man is reluctant to start any sort of job on Saturday, in the belief that he will ‘piddle around’ for six additional Saturdays before he gets it done” (p. 69)

“It is bad luck to burn floor sweepings or shavings that have been produced inside the house. An old-time Ozark housewife seldom sweeps her cabin after dark, and she never sweeps anything out at the front door” (p. 70)

The fantastic Appalachian blog Blind Pig and the Acorn has a fascinating entry on a death omen called a “belled buzzard.”

Belled Buzzards

According to the site, which cites a newspaper story about this phenomenon, in King George County, VA, a buzzard was observed flying low by houses with a bell around its neck and streamers tied to its body.  Similarly adorned birds figure in tales from the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas.  According to the blog’s author:

“Most of the sightings or ‘hearings’ caused folks to believe the belled buzzards foretold death. One legend even tells the story of a belled buzzard harassing a man after he killed his wife-to the point of the man turning himself in for her murder” (Tipper par.2).

So if you happen to see any big birds around your neighborhood with bells, chimes, or any musical instrument on their person, take heed!

Personal Lore

Finally, today, I thought I’d share a few of the things I was brought up believing.  Most of this information is from my mother.

  • When cooking soups, stews, and sauces, she’d often include a bay leaf in the pot.  Whoever found the bay leaf was thought to be in for some good luck.
  • If rain broke out of a clear sky, my mother always said that “the Devil is beating his wife.”
  • She taught me that if your ears burn, someone’s talking about you.  If your nose itches, someone wants to kiss you.  And if your hands itch, money’s coming your way soon.
  • You should never kill a spider or a frog indoors, as it will bring bad luck, she always said.  Unless the spider was a black widow or brown recluse.  Then it seemed to be okay.
  • She always kept an aloe plant in her kitchen window, both for an easy source of bug-bite and sunburn treatment and to bless the house in general with good fortune.

Okay, that will do it for today, I think.  Please feel free to share your own lore.  I’m always eager to hear it!

Thanks for reading!


13 thoughts on “Blog Post 28 – Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign…”

  1. i used to catch insects quite alot when i was little, i have a good story or lore for each one really…. my favorite are lady bugs, which i still think of ladybugs as the ‘friendliest’ of friends (even though their larvae are really bitey!)- whenever i see one inside the house i think it is bringing good news with it.

    and i was thinking on how in most native american mythology white animals are considered to be very sacred. -white deer, bear, especially the white bison, since she was seen as symbol of the buffalo woman. i think because of their holiness, it would be badluck to kill a white animal.

    — thanks for the lore!

    1. Anica I LOVE hearings stories like that 🙂 I think that having stories for things like insects or plants is one of the single best things we can do to be attuned to the world around us. Thank you so much for sharing that!


  2. My mother always cut our hair depending on the moon phase. If she didn’t wanna do it for a while, she cut it on the wane….if we just needed a trim, but wanted our mullets to grow out faster, she trimmed up on the waxing….man that was personal…i admit…i was a mulleted southern kid.

    1. Oh yeah! I remember growing up hearing that, too! I can’t believe I totally forgot about it when writing these articles, but good catch in bringing it up. There are lots of other things that you can do by the signs, like caring for pets and livestock, that I left off as well. Hmmm…those would be good future topics, methinks.

  3. I just realized that had jackshit to do with animals. Hmm….. I know i have one of those somewhere. I know! We were always told that if you hook your fingers together when a dog is about to drop one in the yard, it will cease to do his deed and walk off….we always did it…and it seemed to work.

    Also, we were told don’t eat straight tailed crawfish, and a snapping turtle won’t let go until the thunder claps, and that when a dog wailed mournfully at a passing siren, it meant they knew someone had died.

  4. Upon waking this morning, I remembered my mother always warning us not to cry at night, or else the panther would come and get us. This is a typical threat of using something scary to make kids behave, much like “rawhead and bloody bones”, which also popped up in some southern folk tales, but is rooted in British lore, just like Jenny Green Teeth, the water weird that would take you down into her waters and kill you.

    1. Did she ever refer to it as a “painter” at all? I remember hearing that as a kid, though not from my mom. Usually it was my more countrified relatives that used that pronunciation. And what a great correlation between Jenny Green Teeth and the night beasties we have here. I remember hearing a couple similar tales while I was in Prague about water goblins or roaming night spirits which would take errant and naughty children away. And of course, there’s always the Piper, but I’ll save him for another discussion, lol *devious grin*

  5. You should read about the Plat Eye.

    as to “painter” I can’t say that she did. would have been “panth-uh” if anything. Honestly, i can hardly remember how my mother sounded in life….she passed some time ago. But, we have never gotten along better 😉

    Look for a book called “when people could fly” has some high john stories, and some raw head and bloody bones as well.

  6. my friend once told me that she was a grown woman before she realised that a
    painer and a panther were two different animals…

  7. Cory,
    my Irish mother told me the same things!

    My dad used to kid that thunder was the result of angels bowling. I believed him until 2nd grade science class taught me otherwise. 🙂

    As you may surmise, I get my odd sense of humor from him, my interest in folklore and magic from my mother (though she’d be appalled at that claim, as she is firmly Christian and intolerant of my occult leanings.) C’est la vie…

  8. I believe it’s bad luck to open a fortune cookie and read the fortune without eating the cookie. No one’s ever taught me this. It just seems to me to be bad luck.

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