"That hath given them [coincidences] grace, and some credit, consisteth in three things. First, that men mark when they hit, and never when they miss; as they do, generally, also of dreams. The second is, that probable conjectures, or obscure traditions, many times turn themselves into prophecies; while the nature of man, which coveteth divination, thinks it no peril to foretell that which indeed they do but collect. - The third and last (which is the great one), is, that almost all of them, being infinite in number, have been impostures, and, by idle and crafty brains, merely contrived and figured, after the event past."
The reasons for the survival of superstition from a more primitive age into our own are that people are slow to surrender beliefs that they have inherited, that many of them are still ignorant and timorous, and that in spite of the explanations of both science and religion they continue to find life and the universe largely inexplicable.
Search for the origins of individual superstitions has enlisted the energies of many folk-lore scholars. Their researches have led them to trace various folk practices to starting-points in the Bible (often misinterpreted and modified by tradition), in pagan mythology, in plant and animal worship, and in sun or moon worship, and to other sources. In as much, however, as the beginnings of folklore lie in nearly all instances far back in the most primitive periods of the human race, conjecture is often the only means of seeking them. The results of research have therefore been marred by uncertainty and guess-work, and scholars have frequently not arrived at agreement. For these reasons, it has seemed best in connection with this folk-lore collection, to refrain from an attempt to record the genesis of the various separate items. Readers who are interested will find in the bibliographical list at the close of the introduction the names of several works in which the attempt is made to trace superstitious survivals to their sources.
4 Francis Bacon: "Of Prophecies," 1625.
In consideration of the distribution of folk-lore in Kentucky, it may as well be remembered that there are three somewhat different classes of people within the State: the mountain whites, originally from Virginia and the Caro-linas; the lowland whites, originally from Virginia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and Maryland; and the lowland negroes. The first and the third of these classes have been less influenced either by immigration or by education than the second; even the lowland whites have been less affected by the coming in of people from outside the State than have the inhabitants of most parts of our country. Most Kentucky superstitions are common to all three classes of the people, because the negroes originally obtained most of their superstitions from the whites, and because the superstitions of Kentucky are in' almost all cases not recent inventions but old survivals from a time when they were generally accepted by all Germanic peoples and even by all Indo-Europeans.
The only class of original contributions made by the negroes to our stock of superstitions is that of the voodoo or hoodoo signs, which were brought from Africa by the ancestors of the present colored people of America. These have taken only slight root in the Caucasian mind. On the arrival of the negro in America, his childlike mind was readily receptive to the white man's superstitions. Reciprocally the black slaves and servants in Kentucky and elsewhere in the South have frequently been the agents through which the minds of white children have been sown with these supernatural beliefs, some of which have remained permanently with them. Nearly all classes of superstitions find acceptance among the negroes. The most widely prevalent are beliefs concerning haunted houses, weather signs, bad-luck and good-luck signs, "charm" cures, and hoodoo signs. In particular, the negroes' belief that the date of the planting of vegetables should be determined by the phases of the moon, is un-shakeable, and the fear, especially of the older negroes, is ever-present that an enemy will impose a hoodoo upon them. With increase of travel, with somewhat broader and more active industrial life, and with improved chances for education, the Kentucky negroes appear to be slowly, though very slowly, losing their superstitious beliefs. Even in the very good negro schools of Louisville and Lexington, however, most of the students, older ones as well as younger, have thus far progressed but little in this direction.
Until the past decade, the life in much of the mountain region of Kentucky has been isolated and primitive. Before that time, not only were there no railroads in the heart of the mountains, but even roads were surprisingly scarce. The beds of small streams served, and in many places still serve, as ready, if not satisfactory, substitutes. Along with feuds, illicit stills, emotional religion, and genuine hospitality, which are characteristics of the pinched life in the mountain fastnesses, folk superstitions have survived with great tenacity. Of late, however, a transformation has begun in this once remote section. Railroads have entered from several directions to open up the coal, oil, and lumber fields. At present, with a fuller industrial life, newcomers have arrived, old families have been scattered, schools have become better and more numerous, and the life of the old communities has entered upon a process of change. The superstitious beliefs still retained by the old-type mountaineers are in general those that were brought to Kentucky by their English and Scotch-Irish ancestors. Many are concerned with good and bad luck signs, which are more or less similar to those that have survived in other places. The chief difference is that these survivals are more widely accepted in the conservative fastnesses of the mountaineers than elsewhere among the white people of Kentucky. Folk remedies and medicines are, also, very widely trusted by the highlanders; for example, many folk practices are customary in connection with child-birth. Men and women who are thought to accomplish cures by incantations, or "ceremonies," and physicians who reinforce more or less legitimate medical practice with charm cures are only gradually becoming less numerous and less influential. One of the most remarkable classes of folk-lore survivals in the mountains of Kentucky is that of witch lore. Perhaps there is at this time no other place in the English-speaking parts of the world where superstitions concerning witches receive so much credence. The supposed activity of these malevolent beings is now, however, as one may judge from the data of later pages in this volume, confined mainly to the bewitching of cows and rarely to the "spelling" of a dog, a horse, or a person. The mountain witch stories are slowly passing into the same class with fairy tales. At present the witches are few, and the witch and charm doctors are chiefly old men and women, who, when they die, will in many cases leave no successors. Yet so instinctive and deep-rooted is superstition that education and the interests of an increasingly more conventional life in the Kentucky mountains combat it with but slow success.
As the lowland whites of Kentucky are more numerous, more varied, and geographically more widely spread than either the negroes of the Blue Grass and the western parts of the State or the white people of the mountains, probably as many individual superstitions may be gleaned among them as among either the negroes or the mountaineers. Naturally they are more fully current in small towns and in country districts than in cities, and more fully among children and illiterates than among educated adults. In a small Kentucky town, life changes less rapidly than in many other places. As it is still in some measure similar to the life in a typical town of a border-Southern State such as Mark Twain reproduces in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, it is not surprising that every folk superstition mentioned in those two books is to be found in the following pages.
A larger percentage of the negroes than of the mountaineers are strongly swayed by folk signs, and a larger proportion of the mountaineers than of the lowland Caucasians. Of this collection of almost four thousand separate items, the majority may be found among both low-landers and highlanders and among both negroes and whites. In the presence of improved and more accessible educational advantages and of increasing complexity of life, superstitions are very gradually dying out in Kentucky.