Retold by Dennis Adams, Information Services Coordinator (Retired), written for the Beaufort County Library website in 2007 and re-posted with minimal editing by Beaufort District Collection Manager, Grace Morris Cordial, MLS, SL, CA on 30 October 2016.
Some African-Americans of the Sea Islands still believe in multiple souls: the “soul” leaves the body and returns to God at death, but the “spirit” stays on earth — still involved in the daily affairs of its living descendants. The spirit of a dead (or dying) older woman may become a “hag”, though in a great many of the stories, a hag is not a ghost or a dead spirit, but a living member of the community.
The Lowcountry hag surpasses the modern meanings of the word in The American Heritage Dictionary, “an ugly, frightful old woman” and “a witch; sorceress”, to attain an older sense of “a female demon”. Any old woman who practices witchcraft and who bears a grudge against one of her neighbors can be a hag. Hags with the greatest powers of witchcraft are sometimes called “boo hags”. A third party can pay a hag to harry someone unknown to the witch herself.
When night falls, the hag is free to leave her body (or to shed her skin, depending on who is telling the story) to wander unseen on land, underground or through the air. The hag is invisible, but her presence is warm to the touch, and feels like raw meat.
When a hag chooses to ride to her victim’s house, she will choose a horse and almost never a mule. The hag drives the horse nearly to death, and tangles the poor beast’s tail into impossible knots. In the morning, the owner finds his horse in a heavy lather, all but crippled from the ghastly ride.
What does a hag do when she gets to her victim? She “rides” that person as well! The hag sits on a sleeping person’s chest and face, weighing the sleeper down and meaning to choke or smother her victim. The victims struggle, never fully awake, as the hag “swallows” their voices so that not even the screamers themselves can hear their calls for help. The hag’s flesh is said to have the bounce of rubber whenever her victim strikes out at her in the dark.
A hag can pass through any door, but there are measures to prevent her from entering a room:
- No hag will pass a broom placed by the door. Hags will avoid brooms night or day, in human form or in their demonic shape.
- Hags share a compulsive nature and must count every hole in a sieve hung on a doorway or each bristle of a brush. One reason for their dislike of brooms is that they must count each and every straw in any broom that they encounter. It may take the whole night to count some objects left by a doorway — and by daylight (the second “fowl crow”) the hag must go back to the body or the skin she has left behind. But beware! Some hags have learned to count quickly over the years and so can manage to get past the obstacles set in their way.
- Because the smell of gunpowder terrifies hags, some people have put a loaded gun at the head of their beds at night!
- Others have stuck match sticks in their hair before going to bed.
- To get rid of a hag once and for all, a victim should throw salt at the demon to keep her from getting back into her shed skin. A hag will soon die without her skin.
- Praying or cursing will kill a hag, too, if done fervently enough.
Of course, there are skeptics, too. Many Sea Islanders dismiss the whole idea of hags and blame the “victims’” troubles on health problems like bad nerves or poor circulation of the blood.
But how to explain the tired-out horses with those impossible knots in their tails?
Learn more about the hags here by visiting our Research Room and perusing our vertical files on “Gullah culture.” Please check the Library system’s homepage for current hours of operation and locations.
“Early One Mornin’, Death Come Creepin’ in M’Room!” in Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage: Legacy of Freedmen on St. Helena Island by Ronald Daise. (Sandlapper Publishing, 1986).
Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Volume I: North America. (G.K. Hall & Co., 1991).
“Hags” and “Boo-Hags” by Mildred Hare and Chalmers S. Murray in South Carolina Folk Tales: Stories of Animals and Supernatural Beings, compiled by workers of the Writer’s Program of Works Projects Administration in the State of South Carolina. (University of South Carolina Press, 1941).
For more Ghost Tales of Beaufort County (SC):