Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ridin' a Hag: A Breathtaking Night Terror Experience

"Don't let de hag ride ya!"

The Gullahs are descendants of enslaved Africans who live in the Low-country region of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. The Gullah themselves are an offshoot of the West African slave trade, during which Africans with various cultural backgrounds were imprisoned in fairly large numbers together. Over time, these people have formed a diverse, cohesive culture that is all their own: the Gullah culture. 

Today, almost half a million Gullahs live along the eastern coast of the United States, ranging from North Carolina to Florida. They have persevered and endured centuries of war, natural disasters, and slavery, and will continue to do so.

When the Africans originally came together in the Southern States, they brought their own religious and spiritual beliefs with them. These superstitions and beliefs gradually blended together over time, with the addition of Christianity completing the mix. One creature of folklore in Gullah legend is particularly well-known.

A boo hag is a mythical creature in the folklore of the Gullah. The presence of boo hags, particularly in South Carolina, may be connected to Charleston's long history of racial inequality. Much of Charleston today is built on reused land, some of which housed colonial-era slave graveyards.

The Gullah believe "haints" (ghosts) can't cross water. Because of this, the color blue is believed to be powerful protection from supernatural haunts. Slaves used to live in brick cabins with on windows, just open holes for ventilation, and they painted the thresholds of openings blue or hung blue cloths over the openings to keep the haints out. 

Even now, painting the window frames, the front porch, or even the exterior doors of one’s house is guaranteed to help prevent a boo hag from entering. In fact, the belief in this color’s powers of protection is so strong that it has been called “haint blue" and is evidenced in present day Charleston.

("The Boo Hag." demonhunterscompendium.blogspot.com. March 27, 2013)

According to the legend, boo hags are similar to vampires. But, unlike vampires, they gain sustenance from a person's breath, as opposed to their blood, by riding their victims. They are often found above displaced burial grounds.

(Mark R. Jones. Wicked Charleston: The Dark Side of the Holy City. 2005)

The creatures have no skin, and thus are red. They have a flaxen-like quality which makes them appear raw and hard to hold onto (bodies without the organ of skin). Besides, no one would want to wrestle with one. The creature is said to possess supernatural strength and can easily overpower a full-grown man.

Boo hags feel warm to the human touch like fresh, raw meat. In order to be less conspicuous, they will kill a victim (usually a young woman) and steal the person's skin to use it for as long as it holds out, wearing it as one might wear clothing. 

Most commonly, the Boo Hag appears in the skin of a young and beautiful lady, but she may also take the form of a harmless old woman. Thus disguised, boo hags can selectively choose potential candidates for "ridin'."

 The "skin" of beauty may be deceiving.

Supposedly, there are some warning signs that a Boo Hag is close by. Dogs may be able to sense her presence, regardless of whether she is invisible or has taken human form. When a Hag is near, dogs will start howling and barking. Crows will also recognize a disguised Hag for what she truly is, and will cry out if she should pass by. If a Boo Hag is close, a human may notice the air will become hot and damp. Then, the smell of rot and decay will follow and fill the air. 

("The Boo Hag." demonhunterscompendium.blogspot.com. March 27, 2013)

When a hag determines a victim is suitable for riding, the hag must first get out of its stolen skin and hide it for her return. Then, by night, she takes to the skies (some say as a ball of light), flying about in search of those whom she chooses to harass and torture while they sleep.

The boo hag will generally gain access to the home through a small crack, crevice, or even a keyhole. The hag will then position themselves over the sleeping victim, sucking their breath. Most accounts say the creature sits on the victim’s chest and, by doing so, she restricts the person's breathing.

Some accounts claim, if the victim is a man, a boo hag may even rape him. A shape-shifter, the boo hag may become invisible at will. Legends say that she is able to shape-shift into an insect as well.

This "ridin'" renders the victim helpless, and induces a deep dream-filled sleep. Victims of the hag are said to experience sleep paralysis (during which they are aware of their surroundings, but are unable to move). 

The hags tend to leave their victims alive, so as to use them again and again for their energy. However, if the victim wakes up and struggles, the hag may suffocate them and take their skin.

After taking the victim's energy, the hag flies off, as they must be in their human skin by dawn or be forever trapped.

When victims of a boo hag awake, they may feel short of breath, but generally they only feels very tired. Some may wake up with strange scratches and experience insomnia due to recurring nightmares. Eventually victims may succumb to exhaustion and illness as a result. All together, these symptoms can lead to mental illness and inevitable death.

An expression sometimes used in South Carolina is "don't let de hag ride ya." This expression likely stems from the boo hag legend.

Court records from 1813 actually indicate a trial against a witch who was accused of "slipping through a keyhole."

It was also said that if a person placed a broom beside their bed before going to sleep it would prevent the hag from riding them. Hags supposedly would be distracted by counting the straws of the broom and would not get to ride the person sleeping before the sun rose the next morning.

Many believe a boo hag, like most supernatural evil, fears and hates salt. They say it can be sprinkled on a floor to keep her at bay, but the most effective use of this substance by far is to thoroughly salt her empty skin while she is “out for the night" (although most legends say that one must use pepper as well).

In addition it is said, a boo hag does not like the smell of asafoetida the roots of several plants of the parsley family (Ferula assafoetida), and so it may be wise to place a bag of this pungent herb on one’s nightstand or bedside table.


All Hallow's Eve - Other Hag Connections 

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain eve was observed on October 31, at the end of summer. This date was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits.

The date was connected with the return of herds from pasture, and laws and land tenures were renewed. The souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. 

Samhain would seem an appropriate time for a hag to ride. A hag, or "the Old Hag," is a nightmare spirit spirit in English and anglophone North American folklore. In this lore, a hag appears to be a wizened, malevolent old woman, or a kind of fairy or goddess having the appearance of such a woman, but a hag may also be one of the chosen forms of shape-shifting deities.

Parallels to the boo hag are evident. According to folklore, the Old Hag sat on a sleeper's chest and sent nightmares to him or her. When the subject awoke, he or she would be unable to breathe or even move for a short period of time. This state is now called sleep paralysis, but in the old belief the subject had been "hagridden." It is still frequently discussed as if it were a paranormal state.

(Michele Ernsting. "Hags and Nightmares: Sleep Paralysis 
and the Midnight Terrors." Radio Netherlands. 2004)

In neurobiology, the expression Old Hag Attack refers to a hypnagogic state (the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep) in which paralysis is present and, quite often, accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. When excessively recurrent, some consider them to be a disorder, however many populations treat them as simply part of their culture and mythological world-view, rather than any form of disease or pathology.

Many stories about hags seem to have been used to frighten children into being good. Peg Powler, for example, was a river hag from English folklore who lived in river trees and had skin the color of green pond scum.

Parents told their children that if they got too close to the water, Peg Powler would pull them in with her extra long arms, drown them, and sometimes eat them. The parents hoped that the children would be afraid of the hag so they wouldn't go anywhere near the water. That way, they'd never fall in and drown. Peg Powler has other regional names, such as Jenny Greenteeth from Yorkshire and Nellie Longarms from several other English counties.

(Brian Froud and Alan Lee. Faeries. 1978) 

This blog entry represents a Halloween story for the sharing. The legend of the creature may make for some ghost story fun. If it goes "bump in the night" and hangs on to ride, you may have experienced the hearty hug of a hag. And, boy, that sucks.

Here is Robert Herrick's famous poem about the creature:

The Hag

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

             The Hag is astride,
              This night for to ride;
    The Devill and shee together:
              Through thick, and through thin,
              Now out, and then in,
    Though ne'r so foule be the weather. 

              A Thorn or a Burr
              She takes for a Spurre:
    With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
              Through Brakes and through Bryars,
              O're Ditches, and Mires,
    She followes the Spirit that guides now. 

              No Beast, for his food,
              Dares now range the wood;
    But husht in his laire he lies lurking:
              While mischeifs, by these,
              On Land and on Seas,
    At noone of Night are working, 

              The storme will arise,
              And trouble the skies;
    This night, and more for the wonder,
              The ghost from the Tomb
              Affrighted shall come,
    Cal'd out by the clap of the Thunder

* Note: Herrick is often remembered for his references to lovemaking and the female body. His later poetry was more of a spiritual and philosophical nature. Perhaps, he is most famous for the opening stanza of his poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time."
"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying."
Happy Halloween, everyone.

"Hello, my name is Rosebud."

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