FOLK BELIEF. Folk beliefs in Texas, like many other elements of folk culture, came with the various groups who entered and settled the state. Though some may have been adapted to their new locale, few if any are unique to the state. Folklorists divide folk beliefs-ideas that are accepted as true without hard evidence and passed down through generations without the sanction of official institutions-into two broad categories, magical and empirical. Magical beliefs are based on supernatural or mysterious elements and include omens, taboos, and good-luck charms. Empirical beliefs, based on experience and observation, include lore about the weather and other natural phenomena. Though many folk beliefs are unique to some ethnic group, most cross ethnic boundaries.
Texas folk beliefs analyze the weather, usually in an attempt to predict it. The more important weather is to a group, the more likely there will be an abundance of weather beliefs. For Gulf Coast fishermen, for instance, a circle around the moon means bad weather. A well-known proverb expresses a common belief: "Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor's delight." Bad weather and other "bad luck" can be caused by whistling on board ship, by shaving on board, or by bringing a black suitcase aboard. Good luck, including good weather, can be ensured by a silver dollar or fifty-cent piece under the ship's mast. Some Hispanic Texans predict the coming year's weather on the basis of the first twelve days of January. Other beliefs about the weather are shared by many in the state. When ducks migrate early in the fall a difficult winter can be expected. When wasps, flies, or spiders come into the house, rain is coming. When cattle run about with their tails up in the air, a storm is coming. An ax stuck in the ground can "split the cloud" to prevent an unwanted storm.
The moon is important in the Texas folklore. Among some representatives of almost every ethnic group in rural Texas, the moon is believed to pertain to birthing, weaning, breeding, planting, harvesting, canning, castrating, and egg hatching. Sleeping in moonlight will make one crazy. Looking at a new moon over the left shoulder will bring bad luck. Many serious fishermen pay attention to the signs of the moon. Some gardeners believe that tubers or root vegetables should be planted in the dark of the moon and leafy and above-ground vegetables in the light of the moon. Hogs butchered in the dark of the moon produce firm meat and abundant lard; soap made between the full moon and the last quarter will be firm. Wood cut during the right quarter of the moon will not snap when burned. Timbers cut in the last quarter of the moon will last longer. Some Mexican Americans of South Texas believe that the mesquiteqv used to build jacals will not rot if cut during the full moon. Some East Texans believe that a tree cut in the dark of the moon in August will not sprout back, and its stump will rot within a year.
Several of the most fascinating Texas folk beliefs center around creatures common to the state. Snakes, particularly, play an important role in the folk beliefs of most ethnic groups. Many of these beliefs are shared, though some are unique to specific groups. A common belief is that snakes charm their victims-birds, small animals, or even people-and exert a strange power over them to make them helpless against attack. A "snake doctor" (dragonfly) can supposedly cure an injured snake if the snake's head isn't chopped off; snakes mortally injured during the day will not die until sundown; a rattlesnake hung with its belly to the sun will bring rain; and horsehairs put into rainwater will turn into snakes. Specific kinds of snakes enjoy their own fanciful reputations. The hoop snake forms a hoop, rolls downhill, and stabs its prey with its tail as it hurls itself, spearlike, after uncoiling. If the barbed tail strikes its victim, the poison kills. Kill a copperhead, and its mate will seek revenge. The coachwhip whips its victims with its body. The red racer chases people. The milk snake sucks cows' teats and makes their milk bloody. Killing a "witch snake" (chicken snake) brings permanent bad luck; it makes cows give bloody milk and causes children to die. A king snake crushes other snakes with blows of its tail, then eats them. "Joint" snakes, when struck or frightened, break into numerous pieces and then reassemble after the danger is past.
Rattlesnakes are believed to swallow their young and to live in peace with prairie dogsqv in prairie dog holes. A common cowboy belief was that a horsehair rope coiled around a camp bed would keep rattlesnakes out. The snake's mortal enemy, the roadrunner or paisano (see BIRDS), is said to kill it by building a corral of thorns or prickly pears around it and forcing it to starve to death or bite itself in frustration. A victim of rattlesnake bite can cure himself by biting off the head of the offending reptile or by splitting the snake open and laying it on the bite. A chicken, split open while alive, is better. Other reptiles have their own accretions of folk belief. When snapping turtles bite, they do not let go until it thunders. Even with their heads cut off, they attempt to get back to the water. Horned lizardsqv ("horned toads") are believed to spit blood from their eyes, and killing one will cause a person's milk cows to go dry or give bloody milk. Some believe that a salamander can get into one's body through conjuring or from wet grass through bare feet. The "mountain boomer" lizard, found in West Texas, is falsely believed to be poisonous. It is said to bite with its teeth, sting with its tail, and bark loudly.
Other creatures are also the subject of folk beliefs in Texas. Birds of ill omen, particularly nightjars (also called goatsuckers because of their reputation for sucking milk from goats), whippoorwills, nighthawks, and owls, foretell death or other misfortune. When a redheaded woodpecker pecks on the roof, a member of the family will die. If a buzzard's shadow crosses one's path, he will surely have bad luck. Killing a wren or disturbing a kildeer's nest will bring bad luck. The owl and sometimes the turkey are ominous to Hispanic Texans, for witches often take these forms, as well as that of a cat. On the other hand, a fairly common belief among older rural Mexican Americans is that roadrunner broth, prepared correctly, has strong curative properties. No birds are supposed to be poisonous. Tarantulas, however, are thought to be deadly, and some believe that if a centipede walks across any part of you, that part will rot to the bone and fall off. Folk beliefs about domestic animals are also common. Feeding hens red pepper supposedly increases egg production. Hispanics' beliefs about horse color affect their choice of mounts. Sorrel horses are thought to have thin hides and therefore to be poor brush-country horses; darker horses are better. Andy Adams noted a similar Caucasian preference for dark horses in Log of a Cowboy.
A number of folk beliefs have to do with social relationships. Most predict future events. A dropped dishrag, an itchy nose, or a rooster crowing through a door or window indicates that company is coming. An itching right hand will soon shake the hand of a stranger. A person whose palm itches or whose ears ring is being talked about. Many beliefs deal with love and marriage. Hold a burning match upright, and the flame will point toward where your sweetheart lives. If four persons cross each others' arms to shake hands, one of them is soon to marry. When an empty bottle is set inside a circle of girls and spun, the open end will point out the one who will marry first.
Most omens and taboos are based on magical beliefs and give a sense of control over one's "fate" by assigning causes and providing counterremedies to ward off ill fortune. Omens of death in the family are myriad: a run-away mule, a dog howling at midnight, a hen crowing like a rooster, taking off a wedding ring, dreaming of losing all one's teeth, carrying a hoe in one door and out another, not cleaning one's shoes before returning from a funeral-all of these portend a death in the family. Taboos include opening an umbrella indoors, leaving a rake on the ground with tines pointing up, dropping a knife, breaking a mirror, allowing a bird to fly into the house, telling a bad dream before breakfast, moving on Friday, carrying an ax through a house, and many others. If one drops scissors and they stick upright, bad luck is coming. Giving a knife or scissors to a friend will sever the friendship; to ward off the evil, one must exchange gifts or buy the knife or scissors for at least a penny. Giving a friend or family member a new empty wallet will cause him to go broke. If one spills salt, he can prevent bad luck by throwing a pinch of it over the right shoulder. If one puts a stocking on backwards in the morning, he can prevent bad luck by wearing it all day. If two people say the same thing at the same time, they can prevent bad luck by saying, "Jinx, you owe me a Coke."
On the other hand, there are a number of ways to make sure that one gets good luck. A horseshoe on a post or over the door brings good luck. If one finds a horseshoe, he should spit on it and throw it over his shoulder; if he doesn't see where it lands, he will have good luck. Carrying a rabbit's foot ensures good luck. If a person finds a pin with the point toward him, he should pick it up for good luck. A wish made before a falling star disappears will come true. Some good luck is portended by happenings that do not take effort on the recipient's part. A dress turned up at the hem promises a new dress. Toads in the garden or chirping crickets bring good luck. If a butterfly sits on one's hat, he will get a new hat.
Image Use Disclaimer
All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.
For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml
If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Joe S. Graham, "Folk Belief," accessed May 30, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ldf02.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Get Texas history every day,
with day by day
Each day's email tells a little bit more of the story of Texas and links to our collection of more than 27,000 articles