The British origins of Black Southerners’ folk beliefs

In his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), the white folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett presents the results of a lengthy field work study he carried out, and rightly notes the following:

Regarding the feelings, emotions, and the spiritual life of the Negro the average white man knows little. Should some weird, archaic, Negro doctrine be brought to his attention he almost invariably considers it a “relic of African heathenism,” though in four cases out of five it is a European dogma from which only centuries of patient education could wean even his own ancestors. This confusion of African and European lore only intensifies cultural differences…

[W]hen the Negro acquired in part the language and outward culture of the white man there would be a tendency to acquire his folk-beliefs as well. For these and other reasons to be brought out later, we must not be surprised to find a good part of the Negro folk-beliefs to be of English or European origin.

Here follow some examples:

Horseshoes

In an article on ‘Negro Superstitions’ (1870), Thaddeus Norris states: ‘Of course there is the universal horseshoe branded on the door of negro cabins as a bar to witches and the devil’.

Over 50 years later, Puckett notes the widespread belief in the power of the horseshoe as protection against witches:

Horseshoes hung over the doors, windows, beds and in other parts of the house, are supposed to be a sure way of keeping these unwelcome visitants away. The Maryland Negroes say, “de witch got to travel all over de road dat the horseshoe been ‘fo’ she can git in de house, and time she git back it would be day.”

And a 1964 book on Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina reports the belief that ‘horseshoes nailed over the door will keep off conjuring influences’.

Puckett comments:

In England also this connection between witches and horses is well marked… In many parts of England the horseshoe over the door is used to keep out witches.

He is quite right. In Devon, for example, in order to ‘frustrate the power of the black witch’, the following was done:

Take a cast horse shoe, nail it over the front door, points upwards. While nailing it up chant in mono-tone the following:

So as the fire do melt the wax
And wind blows smoke away,
So in the presence of the Lord
The wicked shall decay,
The wicked shall decay.
Amen.

The Rabbit’s Foot

A 1903 Encyclopaedia of Superstitions states that ‘If you search a negro’s pocket in the South, you will be as apt to find a rabbit’s foot in it as a razor’.

Puckett notes:

Europeans until quite recently valued a rabbit’s foot and carried it about the person as a charm. This is true of the Negroes (and many whites) as well, and they have a little story about Brer Rabbit disposing of the last witch in the world by putting pepper in her vacated skin. Thus Brer Rabbit is just “bawn ter luck” and his left foot will surely bring luck to you.

And also: ‘The phenomenal success of General Fitzhugh Lee of Virginia, in his gubernatorial race, was attributed by the Negroes to the fact that he carried a rabbit’s foot and a bottle of stump water’.

European belief in the power of the rabbit’s foot dates back to at least the first century. Pliny the Elder writes:

Bear’s gall [is] very useful for diseases of the joints, as are also the feet of a hare worn as an amulet, while gouty pains are alleviated by a hare’s foot, cut off from the living animal, if the patient carries it about continuously on the person.

Beliefs in the power of hares’ (or rabbits’) feet persisted for centuries. Writing in 1827, the Englishman William Hone notes an ‘antidote to witchery’ and states that his mother ‘carries a hare’s foot in her pocket, to guard against all attacks in that quarter by day’.

The English folklorist Sir Charles Igglesden (1861-1949) reported: ‘I am told that hundreds of mothers, even today, place a rabbit’s foot in the perambulator when a child is taken out by a nurse’, in order to prevent accidents.

The Lucky Coin

Tony Kail notes that excavations of former slave quarters in the South have turned up coins pierced with holes:

An 1834 half dime was found pierced along with a trade token that had been partially drilled on both sides. The half dime is nearly identical to those found in other slave dwellings in the South. Coins were frequently used as charms and worn on strings as a means of repelling evil or crossings. Dimes that had been pierced were in use in neighboring Mississippi.

Kail cites Puckett:

One “mojo” worn for good luck by an old Negro cook in the Mississippi Delta, included among other things such ingredients as a lizard’s tail, a rabbit’s foot, a fish eye, snake skins, a beetle, and a dime with a hole in it.

We also read, in Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, that ‘Many Negroes wear dimes with holes in them around their ankles to ward off conjure’.

Meanwhile, in Britain:

Coins which have been defaced in certain ways have long been regarded as lucky pieces across Britain, and have been widely carried or worn to ensure good fortune, or to protect against bad luck. From the early nineteenth century onwards, many reports focus on coins with holes in them.

The Lucky Pin

Puckett writes:

Found things often have their meanings, especially in the case of pins which, of course, represent domestic articles associated chiefly with women. Here again we have a strong European background — almost always this is the case with articles of this sort. “If you see a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck.” In England there is the same identical rhyme with the addition: See a pin and let it be (lie), All the day you’ll have to cry.

James Haliwell’s 1886 book, The Nursery Rhymes of England, provides the following version:

See a pin and pick it up,
All the day you’ll have good luck;
See a pin and let it lay,
Bad luck you’ll have all the day!

The Hangman’s Rope

Puckett writes:

Ravelings from a hangman’s rope are a choice ingredient for a hoodoo-bag, but this is hardly of African origin, since the Africans are not much given to this form of punishment, and since we find parts of the rope by which a man was hanged valued as a prosperity-charm in Scotland.

Such beliefs were not merely confined to Scotland. John Brand, writing in 1849, reports:

I remember once to have seen, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, after a person executed had been cut down, men climb up upon the gallows and contend for that part of the rope which remained, and which they wished to preserve for some lucky purpose or other. I have lately made the important discovery that it is reckoned a cure for the headache.

Brand also recounts a story about the hanging of Nicholas Mooney (‘a notorious highwayman’) at Bristol in 1752:

A young woman came fifteen miles for the sake of the rope from Mooney’s neck, which was given to her; it being by many apprehended that the halter of an executed person will charm away the ague, and perform many other cures.

A regional variation is also found in nineteenth century Devon:

A portion of a rope with which a suicide has hanged himself is a wondrous charm against all accidents, when worn around the person.

Bibliomancy

Puckett writes:

The Negro generally makes a wish, then opens his Bible. If he happens on the words, “and it shall come to pass,” then he believes his wish will be granted…

Many of the conjurers whom I know could read and write, and some turn this knowledge into direct use in sorcery, as where the Bible is used for purposes of divination.

A Scottish minister, writing in 1705, warns:

Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?

John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s 1867 book on Lancashire Folk-Lore notes:

In modern divination, two modes are in popular favour—thrusting a pin or a key between the leaves of a closed Bible, and taking the verse the pin or key touches as a direction or omen: and the divining-rod.

‘Voodoo Dolls’

Puckett reports:

In rural districts of Georgia reputed witches may lay a spell by baking an image of dough representing a person, and sticking pins into it, thus causing the victim to suffer pain.

And again:

Make an image of a person out of graveyard snake-oil mixed with flour or sand, bake it good by an open fire, and you can give a person pains in any part of his body by sticking pins in the image.

Meanwhile, in nineteenth century Devon:

In Devonshire, witches, and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it. In the former case that person is racked with rheumatism in all his limbs; in the second he is smitten with raging fever.

The similarity between folk beliefs associated with black Southerners and the folk beliefs of the people of the British Isles are too marked to be merely coincidental. It would be entirely unsurprising to find that Southern blacks acquired the folk beliefs held by Southern whites and incorporated them into their own folk magical systems. It is possible that, in some cases, analogous West African beliefs were merged with European beliefs (the power of the rabbit’s foot is a strong contender for this), but in general it seems clear that the true origins of a number of black Southerners’ folk beliefs lie in Britain.

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