The Boo Hags of Gullah Culture
Have you ever awakened in the morning absolutely exhausted despite a full night’s sleep? Think about it for a minute. We’ll come back to that.
Grocery vendors and butchers first occupied the original sheds of the market, built between 1804 and 1830. Those same sheds have withstood the years of wars and natural disasters, and today you can find all kinds of goodies–food, jewelry, clothing, leather items, wood carvings, and much, much more.
Some of the coolest things you’ll see at the Market are the woven sweetgrass baskets. Gullah women—and some men—can be seen weaving their beautiful sweetgrass baskets or selling Gullah souvenirs and spices.
If you’re not familiar with the Gullah culture, let me catch you up.
The Gullah culture is an offshoot of the West African slave trade. It’s important to recognize that slaves of other origins (American Indians, Asians, etc.) did exist in those days, but by the mid-1700s, Africans were the majority, by far. They were highly desired, and with good reason. In addition to being skilled carpenters and masons, Africans knew how to farm, and in particular, they knew how to cultivate rice—an important part of Charleston’s agricultural commerce.
Africans with various backgrounds were imprisoned together in large numbers, and they formed a cohesive culture…the Gullah culture. Today, they are the descendants of African slaves brought to the Carolinas in the late 1500s. Almost half a million Gullahs live on the eastern coast, from Florida to North Carolina. Lots of Gullahs live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina, and in particular, the Sea Islands. The fact that Gullah culture has persevered for hundreds of years despite slavery, war, and natural disaster, is a testimony of their resilience and fortitude. They are an incredibly interesting people. Check out this video to learn more about their culture and history.
One of the beliefs that Gullahs hold is that people have both a soul and a spirit. They believe that souls leave human bodies upon death, and, if it’s a good soul, it ascends to Heaven. The spirit of a person has a different function. A good spirit stays behind to watch over the deceased’s family, guiding and protecting them, if needed.
A bad spirit, on the other hand, is a “boo hag.” The boo hag uses witchcraft to manipulate people and steal energy from the living while they sleep. Gullahs sometimes bid each other good night, saying “don’t let de hag ride ya!”
Boo hags are a little like vampires in that they are undead beings that feed off of living humans. They are skinless, and bright red in color, with bulging blue veins. To survive in the world of the living, they’ll steal a living person’s skin, and wear it like clothes so that they can move amongst the living without suspicion. At night, though, they shed the skin, and go looking for a victim to “ride.”
Boo hags are crafty. They can get into your house through very small openings—a slightly open window, or even a crack in a wall. Once inside, they’ll sit on a sleeping victim’s chest, and steal their breath, or, more specifically, their energy. A boo hag will “ride” its victim all night long, then sneak away before dawn to return to its skin. If it can’t get back to its skin before the sun comes up, it will be destroyed.
There are some warning signs to let you know that a boo hag is close. First, the air will become very hot and damp. Second, the air will smell like something is rotting.
But if you’ve woken up exhausted after a full night’s rest, you may have been visited by a boo hag.
Boo hags are not without weaknesses, though. First, they, like other evil spirits in Gullah culture, are repelled by indigo blue. If you go outside, and paint the tops of your window frames indigo blue, boo hags won’t be able to get through those windows. Salt, too, is a good boo hag repellent. A salted hag can’t get back into its skin. But it’s difficult to salt a hag, especially since we can’t just run around pouring salt on people we deem suspicious.
The easiest way to avoid a visit from a boo hag is to keep a straw broom or a brush with many bristles close by. Boo hags are apparently curious and compulsive creatures. They can’t seem to pass a straw broom by without counting every last strand. By the time they finish counting, they typically don’t have enough time to get back to their skin before the sun comes up. Sieves and strainers will also work, because they’ll need to count all the holes.
Some boo hags are able to count fast, so you might want to keep a few bristled brushes and strainers around.
If you wake up and discover a boo hag on your chest, it’s best not to fight it. If you fight, the boo hag might steal your skin!
Have you been exhausted lately? Tonight, when you go to bed, be sure to hang a strainer on your bedroom’s doorknob. And leave a straw broom in the corner of the room. Maybe you should place a salt shaker on your night table, just in case. Hopefully that will be enough for you have a good night, sleep tight…and don’t let de boo hag ride ya!
A Boo Hag counting the straw on a broom:
Zepke, T. (2009). Lowcountry voodoo. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press.
A Boo Hag peers through a keyhole:
Melinda’s Midnight. (2010). Evil women: The charleston boo hags. Retrieved from http://jhb15.tripod.com/midnight/id17.html
City Market in the mid-1880s:
City Market Preservation Trust, LLC. (2012). History, charleston city market. Retrieved from http://thecharlestoncitymarket.com/history.cfm
City Market Today:
Green, C. (2011). Charles green. Retrieved from http://www.charlesgreenhistory.com/about.html
Unknown. (circa 1790). Wikipedia Commons. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gullah_s_carolina_1790.jpg
South Carolina Sea Islands:
WorldAtlas. (2011, April 12). South carolina sea islands . Retrieved from http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/scisles.htm
Jacqueline. (2010, June 29). The real housewife of bowie county. Retrieved from http://bowiecountyhousewife.blogspot.com/2010_06_01_archive.html