Haskins devotes only a couple of pages to the issue of witches and, in particular, “hag riding”. Even in brief, the discussion is a fascinating take on the ancient archetype of the “wicked witch” which seems to be a curious combination of various cultural beliefs and actual physiological experience.
As Haskins notes, the folklore of hag riding most probably comes from a West African beliefs about the habits of witches. According to this folklore, witches are said to visit sleeping people, climb up on their chests and suck their life out, either via blood or breath or both. Another spin is that the hag literally rides the sleeping person’s astral body out to do her mischief, returning them to bed only as the sun rises. This version has the same effect as the other; a wasting death through exhaustion.
Similar beliefs exist in European and Middle Eastern folklore as well and those who swear to have experienced the phenomena may in fact be responding to a form of night terror known as sleep paralysis. In this scenario, a person’s brain jolts to consciousness out of sleep a few seconds before their body’s neurological function has time to do the same. They report feelings of being pinned down, stifled or crushed and being unable to draw in a decent breath. It is not hard to imagine something, or someone, sitting on your chest or holding you down in such a situation.
Because hag riding was particularly feared among practitioners of hoodoo, several forms of protection were developed to keep witches out of homes and away from those sleeping peacefully therein. Haskins reports on remedies for hag riding from the first two decades of the 20th century. Almost all of these have counterparts in European folklore as well.
Salt should be sprinkled around the home, and particularly in the fireplace.
An individual should carry black pepper or a knife. Putting matches in one’s hair was another way to ward off hags.
Planting mustard seed near or under the front porch was said to keep both witches and ghosts away. Mustard or flax seed – sometimes along with a pan of cold water – placed next to the bed was said to work too.
Hags would not touch a sleeping person with a sifter under their pillow. An alternative kitchen tool for this purpose was a pair of scissors.
Hanging a horseshoe over the front door was thought to encourage luck and keep both hags and ha’nts (ghosts) away. The installation of a new roof, window or door was a sure trick against both troubles as was a fresh coat of blue paint. Specific colors, known as “haint blue” are still favored for painting porches today.
Most of us would not admit to being troubled by hags or ha’nts “now’a days”. All the same, the old wisdom is usually the best. Then too, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…
Header: Shutters painted haint blue from an excellent article on the subject here at Curious Expeditions