Hats, Horseshoes and Rodeos: A Note on Superstitions of the Old West
In the rugged, wild expanse of the Old West, where cowboys roamed, and saloons echoed with tales of adventure, superstitions were as commonplace as the tumbleweeds drifting across the prairies. The age-old beliefs, rooted in folklore and practicality, played a significant role in the lives of those who dared to conquer the untamed frontier and became fodder for Wild West novels and novelettes.
Superstitions of the Old West
The Mysterious Power of the Cowboy Hat: In the Old West, a cowboy hat placed on a bed was more than a fashion faux pas; it was a harbinger of misfortune. Folk wisdom holds that such an act will not only spark arguments, but also bring about imminent harm and even death. The origins of this superstition were as practical as they were eerie. In an era where regular bathing was a luxury, cowboys had to cope with head lice. Placing a hat on a bed was a surefire way to spread this menace, making it a symbol of bad luck and potential disaster. There are rituals to reverse this curse—go to 2:02 in this video.
Horseshoes: Guardians Against Evil: During the Middle Ages, iron, believed to withstand fire, was thought to repel evil forces, ensuring the safety of the home and its occupants. In the Old West, nailing horseshoes over doors was more than just rustic decoration; it was a shield against evil spirits and witches.
Sailors also nailed horseshoes to the foremasts of their ships to repel the evil spirits and entities who might prevent the ship and crew from safely arriving at their destination.
The debate over whether to hang the horseshoe in an upward “U” position to contain luck or downward to shower luck on the household added a layer to this superstition, often leaving homeowners and sailors hanging them both ways, just to be safe.
Rodeos: Luck and Chicken Dinners: Cowboys avoided competing with change jingling in their pockets. Why? Because they feared that was all they might win―mere pocket change. Another bizarre belief cautioned against consuming chicken before an event, emphasizing the saying “You are what you eat.” Wearing yellow in the arena asked for bad luck, given the color’s association with cowardice, a trait no cowboy wanted to be linked to.
Whistling at Night: Whistling at night was considered an invitation for supernatural entities. Cowboys refrained from whistling after dark, believing it could attract spirits or even coyotes, which might bring misfortune or danger.
Number 13 Superstition, Friday the 13th: Much like in other cultures, the number 13 was thought highly unlucky in the Old West. Moreover, the superstition surrounding Friday the 13th being a day of bad luck was prevalent. Cowboys and settlers often avoided essential tasks on this day, fearing misfortune.
Weird West: Where Fantasy Meets Frontier
“Weird West” is a subgenre that combines elements of the West with another literary genre, such as fantasy or horror.
One of the earliest known superstition and supernatural menaces injected into a Western setting is “The Horror from the Mound” by Robert E. Howard. It appeared in the Weird Tales pulp magazine in 1932. It concerns a former cowboy, Steve Brill, who notices an old Mexican laborer, Juan Lopez, avoiding a mound on his property. But there is a secret inside, and the very few who know about it have been sworn to secrecy.
The only known Western fantasy by L. Ron Hubbard, Shadows from Boothill was published in the Wild West Weekly magazine in 1940. In this tale, outlaw Brazos finds himself entangled in a deadly curse of a second shadow after a fateful encounter with a witch doctor. The author wrote in a note to the editor: “Hope your readers like Shadows from Boot Hill. The Old West was superstitious in the extreme and … reeks with more fantasy than The Arabian Nights.”
In a more contemporary take, Emma Bull’s 2008 novel Territory, weaved a captivating narrative around the legends of Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday. Set in Tombstone, Arizona, this tale infused Old West lore with dark magic and supernatural forces, exploring the intricate relationship between frontier life and the inexplicable.
The superstitions of the Old West were more than mere quaint beliefs; they were threads of mystique woven into the fabric of daily life. In a land where danger lurked around every corner, these beliefs provided comfort and a semblance of control in the face of the great unknown.
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