Old Sayings and Superstitions from The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia


These sayings are taken from Shenandoah VoicesFolklore, Legends, and Traditions of the Valley by late historian and author John Heatwole. I also threw in some cures.

I knew and greatly respected John Heatwole.  He even helped me with some of the initial research for my first historical novels.  The wealth of knowledge he amassed is just one of the rich legacies John left behind.  Shenandoah Voices is my favorite book by him.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the old ways and days of rural Virginia, especially the valley and surrounding mountains.  I was also privileged to hear John speak on this fascinating subject.  He’s best known for his vast knowledge and books about the Civil War.  He was also an amazing wood carver/artist, a man of many talents.  Much missed.
Many early valley settlers were Scots-Irish, my ancestors among them.  People from the British Isles tended to be superstitious.  Also prevalent in the valley were Germans bringing the influence of the Pennsylvania-Dutch, another superstitious group.  To quote Michael Scott, boss from NBC’s hit show, The Office, “I’m not superstitious, just a little stitious.”


It’s bad luck to lay a hat on the bed.~
An itching nose means a visitor is coming. ~
A cardinal bumping against the window pane is an indication of an early death~
*To this I have to add ‘or an insanely jealous bird regarding his reflection as another male which tends to happen with cardinals.’

Peel an apple all in one piece and throw the peel over your shoulder.  When you turn around and look at it lying on the ground, whatever letter it reminds you of will be the first letter of your future husband’s last name.~
It’s bad luck to point at a rainbow. ~ *I suspect we are all guilty of this one.  Who knew?
It’s bad luck to bring a shovel into the house ‘because it is a grave tool.’ Some also think a hoe in the house bodes no good.~

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.~
If a bird flies into your house there will soon be a death in the family~Within six months if a whippoorwill comes to your treetop and sings at night. ~ *How many of you have even heard a whippoorwill?  I have.

If a baby smiles in its sleep, the child is talking to the angels. ~ *My personal favorite.

Rain isn’t far behind when a tree shows the underside of its leaves.~

Count the number of foggy mornings in August and that is how many winter snows there will be.~ I heard this one not long ago and suspect it may be true.  I’m also a believer in wooley bears predicting winter…

A new moon with the points up means dry weather, and a moon with the points down means rain will soon fall. ~

If a full moon has a ring around it there will be snow by morning. ~ If the ring is large, the number of stars you count in it will be the number of inches that fall.~ *We say a ring around the moon means rain, or snow, within a few days.

Sheep shearing takes place around the first of May.  A cold rain will follow within a few days of shearing called a sheep rain. ~

On Ash Wednesday people made pancakes or the chickens wouldn’t lay.~ *We still have pancake suppers in the valley on that day.


Horse chestnuts carried in the pocket are thought to ward off rheumatism. ~

Sassafras tea is good to thin the blood. ~

Broth made from the hind legs of mice is good for kidney ailments.~ *Not tried this one. ‘Swamp root’ tea is also recommended for kidney disorders.~ I’ll have to research exactly what swamp root is.

For someone who is weak and recovering from long illness, make them sparrow broth tea. ~ *This supposedly saved my grandmother’s life when she was sick as a child.

Before taking a new baby out for its first ride (this probably applied to a wagon or buggy) the ‘herb lady’ rubbed warm bear grease on one of the infant’s palms and the bottom of the opposite foot thus insuring that the baby was protected from the rigors of the journey.


A hog’s tooth carried in your right pocket will ward off toothache.~ *Maybe I should take up this one.

Catnip tea was made for children with colic.~ Tea from peppermint leaves will stop a stomachache.~ *These are still practiced.

Sage tea will keep a woman’s hair from turning gray prematurely.~

Treat measles with sheep manure that has been boiled, strained, and diluted with moonshine.~ *I assume with enough moonshine the patient didn’t notice the manure so much.

For a bad cold put lard on your chest sprinkled with salt. Another remedy is a mustard plaster made with mustard, lard, and egg whites and laid on the chest~

Freckles on the face can be washed away on the first of May. If they are washed in morning dew, they will be transferred to the hands which can be dried on another less visible part of the body like the arms or legs and left there permanently.  It’s recommended that this practice be repeated for three years in a row to work. ~

When mumps invade your house put hog manure on the throat as a relief or cure. ~ *Considering the stench of hog manure, I doubt the sufferer would find much relief.

And I could go on, but this is enough for now.  Well, maybe one more.  “To get rid of warts, tie a knot in a string for each wart you have and bury it under rock.  When the string rots the wart will be gone. ~

*Photographs of the valley and mountains by my talented husband and mother. Bottom pic is of a tiny log chicken/hog barn.  I should add former as it appears abandoned and a wet weather creek runs right under it.

13 responses to “Old Sayings and Superstitions from The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

  1. My mother’s family was from Maryland via Wales. I have memories of following her out of the house to a remote area of our farm to bury a knotted string she said would cure my brother’s warts. She and her 8 siblings ascribed to most of the other superstitious sayings written about in this article throughout their lives and passed them on to myself and my cousins. Most of us have outgrown or never taken on the fears my mother’s family had associated with many of these superstitions. However, birds flying into houses still makes me pause and reflect on her words.


  2. Stephen Daniel Suddarth

    Grandaddy, Emmett Daniel Suddarth Sr.fr. Nelson Co. and Uncle Hawthorne [Glass Holler]{ Cherokee.} passed this one down to my Daddy and us : Plant your corn when the Oak leaves get as big as squirrel’s ears -during full moon time. {Springtime}
    I need to get this book. Thanks
    Stephen Daniel Suddarth


    • Planting corn when the leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear is an old country saying from here too, but I didn’t know the full moon part. Thanks for sharing it. What a wonderful heritage you have.


      • Stephen Daniel Suddarth

        Thanks, yes-as far as we know, as many as 10 generations in Virginia of Suddarths and Campbells..both Scottish descent of course. Gr. uncle Hawthorne name was Glass, his place was a vernacular cabin just to the south of Indian Head Mountain.


      • Fascinating. Our Scots-Irish ancestors have been in the valley since the earliest days. Campbell is a valley name I am very familiar with. Suddarth not so much. I love the description of your great-uncle.


    • My grandmother was a half sister to your grandfather. Would love to communicate with you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Barbara, are you replying to one of the commentators, or to me?


      • stephen suddarth

        Yeah, good question- I replied to her [above]..by the way I have a whole list of vernacular old VA sayings in my Notes on FB..any way to send that to this website ?..just wondering

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sure! Love to see them Stephen. Email me at bctrissel@yahoo.com Also, tell me more about your background. Very interesting.


      • stephen suddarth

        Sure, If you have Facebook, message me on my page-[same name], or by email if you want.– Stephen


      • Stephen Suddarth

        Barbara, Sure- you can write me on this email or Facebook [message] on Stephen Daniel Suddarth-if you have FB. Thanks, Stephen

        On Mon, Jul 11, 2016 at 10:03 AM, One Writers Way wrote:

        > Barbara commented: “My grandmother was a half sister to your grandfather. > Would love to communicate with you.” >


      • stephen suddarth

        Barbara, I never heard back from you..remember ? my grandpa was Emmett Daniel Suddarth….email me at ssbub5@gmail.com
        do you know Nancy Oliver ? shes a cousin on the Campbell side.
        thanks, Stephen Daniel Suddarth


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