All cultures maintain beliefs that can be classified as folk beliefs, or common beliefs that are not necessarily grounded in scientific fact but are widely accepted as truth by most members of the group. The ample assortment of cultural groups in Oklahoma ensures that the state's inhabitants hold an array of folk beliefs. These can be seen regularly across ethnicities and are expressed in topics ranging from the weather to childbirth. Some of these beliefs take the form of light-hearted axioms, but others comprise important social rules, which if broken, constitute a serious breech of respect and even threaten the group's well-being.
Folk beliefs appear in many different ways within a culture. Some remain private and are known only within a group, and others take more public expression. Public folk beliefs often appear in the form of proverbs or axioms that have become embedded in culture as colloquialisms, or "hard sayings," as they are sometimes called by Oklahomans. Weather-related examples of folk beliefs are easy to identify. For instance, when rain falls while the sun shines, many Oklahomans say "the Devil is beating his wife." Also frequently heard is the rhyme "red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight." These familiar axioms have become integral choices within many vocabularies.
Another good venue for examining folk beliefs lies within birth and gestational narratives. Often, pregnant women are taught a variety of methods of observation that can be used to detect the sex of an unborn child. One that commonly circulates is that if a mother carries a child higher in the abdomen, she will have a girl, and lower, a boy. Additionally, in order to detect a child's gender, an expectant mother may tie a pencil or a wedding ring on a string and hold the device near her abdomen; depending upon whether the ring makes a circle or swings back and forth, the child's gender will be identified. There are other gender-related beliefs. One involves mixing a pregnant woman's urine with Draino, with the resulting color identifying either a boy or girl baby. Many other beliefs would regulate a pregnant woman's activities; some people firmly believe that a pregnant woman should not lift anything over her head, for doing so will cause the baby's umbilical cord to be wrapped around its neck. These folk beliefs are very public and are openly exchanged.
On the other hand, certain groups in Oklahoma possess restricted beliefs that govern their cultural practices. These constitute more than just light-hearted sayings or games to predict the gender of a child. These beliefs constitute serious cultural mores, and a violation might adversely affect the entire community. One such example comes from American Indian tribal members who staunchly obey age-old menstrual rules that isolate women from men at certain times. In these cultures, strict obedience to rules is deemed essential for tribal prosperity.
Certainly, an array of other common circumstances and situations have engendered folk beliefs, and many of these are tied to the genre of contemporary or urban legend. For instance, many people ardently believe that the soft drink Coca-Cola can dissolve a nail, a piece of meat, or any other substance and can remove paint from a car. As late as the 1980s many of Oklahoma's senior citizens cautioned their grandchildren that drinking too many Cokes would cause them to develop kidney problems. While Cokelore has become an important facet of American life, so too have axioms related to occupational or family activities. To once again call Coca-Cola's magical powers into play, Coke is often used by amateur mechanics to clean battery posts. Similarly, peanut butter is acclaimed for its abilities to remove gum from children's hair.
Folk beliefs appear within many occupations and crop up in everyday activities. Sports and recreation also come with their share of folk beliefs. Football, softball, and baseball players often maintain a strict set of practices or superstitions about playing. Similarly, many rodeo contestants, fearing bad luck, refuse to wear certain numbers when competing. Among men who work in groups, when one man borrows a pocket knife from another man, he will return it in exactly the same manner in which it was loaned; if handed to the borrower open, then the knife will be returned open; if offered closed, it will be returned closed.
In the 1930s the folklore section of the Oklahoma Writers' Program, a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers' Project, operated a field program and traveled around the state collecting information on tales, songs, speech patterns, and dance. Now housed at the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City, the collection was used to prepare a section in Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (1941). In a chapter on "Folklore and Folkways" the writers note a number of specific folk beliefs held by whites, American Indians, and African Americans of that era. Among the general population, beliefs included: To cure a snakebite, kill the snake, cut it open, and apply the warm flesh to the wound. Do not sweep under a sick person's bed, lest he die. Beliefs attributed to the Southeastern Indian tribes, and influenced by African American cultures, included: Medicine kept in a house where death has occurred loses its potency. Babies must not have their hair cut until after they are a year old, or they will never walk.
Oklahomans maintain many kinds of folk beliefs, and even though technology and science have become important parts of contemporary life, many people still rely upon and employ folk beliefs in their daily activities. These beliefs are often deeply embedded, and although the actual practice relating to the belief may have declined, its verbalization remains.
Benjamin A. Botkin, ed., Folk-say: A Regional Miscellany (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1930).
Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction (4th ed.; New York: Norton, 1998).
Angie Debo, ed., Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941; reprint, The WPA Guide to 1930s Oklahoma, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1986).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Lisa Abney, “Folk Beliefs,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=FO004.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.