Though many people think of Deep Southern locations like New Orleans when they think of folk religions and magic, the traditions exist and thrive all over the South, which has often been called a haunted place. The South’s religious heritage is known not only for mainstream Protestant Christianity but also for beliefs in supernatural beings and otherworldly entities. This essay shares one writer’s experiences with the latter, starting when she was a child in the Upper South.
What in the World?
by Stephanie Rose Bird
A difficult to explain entity called a hant was my first exposure to a world where I would eventually become immersed. The term hant may be unfamiliar to many readers’ ears. A hant is an entity, somewhat akin to a ghost. It is of Mid-South to Deep Southern origins and is thought to be related to the word haunt. Hants are entities, troubled, troublesome or not, that are not human. I think of them as spirits caught between worlds.
Spirits, folklore, and earth-based spirituality are essential elements in my life. Enamored with folklore as I am, I became a Hoodoo practitioner, a practice with strong Southern roots. When people accustomed to the more familiar Voodoo ask what Hoodoo is, I tell them it is an eclectic collection of folkloric traditions. These practices have filtered all the way into the mainstream contemporary culture in various ways, one of which is blues songs such as Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Workin’,” which include references to mojo and the mojo bag. Muddy Waters grew up in the cotton-growing area of the Mississippi Delta under the care of his grandmother on the Stovall plantation near Clarksdale.
My family ancestry on both sides is centered in Virginia, the Richmond area, and Charlottesville specifically, for several centuries. While my parents weren’t practitioners of Hoodoo, its tenets, being a part of their ancestral Southern roots, filtered down to them through black culture and through them to me.
I have memories in the early 1970s that revolve around the unexplained. The earliest memory of the unexplained, or paranormal thinking and energy, entered my world as a youngster. The following is a true story, and it occurred before I engaged in Hoodoo or any form of Southern folkloric magick intentionally.
Babysitting at the Witching Hour
When I was a girl in South Jersey, maybe ten or eleven years of age, I was home late at night, babysitting my siblings. We didn’t have many neighbors. Most of the homes were only occupied during the summer. We lived in a cobblestone cottage, with a cobblestone fireplace, on a lake in a lush and wooded area. The main sounds to be heard were from insects (crickets primarily), splashes in the lake (otters and fish, no doubt), and the call and response of bullfrogs.
We had a mantel clock . . . going tic toc, tic toc, tic toc. I remember looking at it as it was perched over the fireplace that was snapping and crackling from the sap of the burning logs. The scene was captivating. So, my eyes went back and forth, from the clock to the logs and accompanying fire. My brothers were fast asleep. Sleepy though I was, I couldn’t allow myself to fall asleep, too. The source of the tic toc, tic toc, tic toc soon showed that it was midnight.
Then, for some reason, I felt a chill. I looked over to the adjacent stairs, where something caught my eye. It was two small white objects, and they were moving . . . almost drifting with intent as they’d descend the staircase. I was fascinated. The first two of these little white things cascaded down the stairs and then two more. This continued, dragged on and on for what seemed like an eternity. Whatever they were, they were making their way down the staircase and would soon be at floor-level, much to my dismay.
With the appearance of the white objects, my interest in looking around the room and at the fireplace narrowed. No longer could I hear the natural sounds from outdoors; all I focused on was what was going on inside. With the eerie background of the snaps and hissing of the fireplace and the beats of the ticking clock, the little white things traveled onward. I didn’t just swallow; it was more like a gulp. Air, that precious element, was suddenly trapped within me. I could barely breathe.
Feeling powerless, gripped in their every movement, my skin crawled. I was beyond goosebumps. Transfixed and also horrified, I didn’t know what to do, but my heart did. It beat faster and faster and faster still, in my chest, with every step! I thought, since it was my duty to watch out for my siblings, it was best to stay put. At least then, once the things reached the floor, I could decide how best to carry out my babysitting job. I knew one thing; I was going to protect my brothers.
Sweat beaded up on my forehead and gradually dripped down my face, stinging my eyes. Soon enough, the slow but steadily moving ghostly filaments hit the floor. The fire from the fireplace illuminated them. Terror was at full tilt, and though I wanted to look away, I couldn’t give myself that permission. I couldn’t see clearly, and my terror was out of control. Somehow my hands had covered my eyes, and I felt inclined to peel them from my face. I didn’t want to look, but I had to see what I was facing—what we faced.
Ideas raced through my mind. The winning theory was some kind of bizarre ghost—perhaps something we Hoodoos call hants. I looked, fully expecting it just to disappear altogether. Was it our black cat with its tiny little white feet . . . or something else?
With the strength of belief being so strong, I was held in the grip of that moment. What was more real: the actions and movement, the gripping terror, or that actual black cat? Whether it was genuinely paranormal or not, I will never really know. Hant or no hant, I understand that this event remains a seminal moment in my development on the route to becoming a Hoodoo. Openness, belief, courage, and strength were already in place, central to my current practice.
Our senses have so much to do with perception. Like I was as a child, being perceptive and open is considered by some to be the devil’s playground. The mind, when open and relaxed, in liminal times when we are between one world and the next, as in being just about to fall asleep, allows us to see what most people would describe as not being there at all.
Bravery is another element, and it is also vital in Hoodoo. When you are a practitioner of a specific path that involves confronting, dispelling, or binding a spirit, it requires a stillness of the mind and a certain kind of steeliness that I had that evening in my childhood home.
Interestingly, this momentous event happened at a time in my life when I wasn’t just in a liminal moment, fighting to keep my eyes open; I was also on the cusp between childhood and becoming a teenager. Even at that tender age, I knew the power of spirit. I believed in ghosts so much that I transported my beliefs onto a happening that could have been paranormal but also might not have been.
What I thought I was seeing or what might have gotten tangled up with my mischievous cat is something I now know is a hant—a well-known entity in Hoodoo. I had no idea about hants at that preciously young time in my life. I knew enough to know what a witching hour was. That time remains my most effective witching hour.
Anyway, if you believe you have hant activity in your home, things going bump in the night – or in the morning, for that matter – here is a Hoodoo trick to dispel it, inspired by an informant in Harry Hyatt’s multi-volume Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork. Hyatt traveled the pathway of Hoodoo extensively, which took him through the South and other locales where it is practiced. He primarily interviewed black Southerners.
Should you encounter, a hant here is what you can do. During your powerful witching hour, go to a nearby cemetery. First of all, say a simple prayer of gratitude to the guardians of the cemetery as you enter the gates. Give the guardians an offering too— coins, a libation, or tobacco work nicely. Get grounded by relaxing and taking a few deep cleansing breaths as you walk. Seek out a powerful, readily available bit of earth, which in Hoodoo, we refer to as graveyard dirt. Put this graveyard dirt in a recycled box with a lid (a clean and dry food container would work nicely, like from a box of oatmeal with a lid). Go back home with this container of graveyard dirt.
Now, pick a comfortable, quiet, private place outside your home to sit on Mother Earth, holding the box and scissors or a knife. Cut a slit at the top of the tube through the lid. Grab a shovel and bury this box beneath your home.
This creation will dispel hants if that’s what you’ve got. But think long and hard about your actions, especially when acting proactively against something that may be paranormal. We tend to overreact to the unknown and then smudge, clean, or purge without a second thought when something seems different or off. If we cleanse and purify while in a state of unknowing, could we expunge our gift, protector, a potential ally even? Is everything of a spiritual or undefined nature something to erase without a second thought? When you don’t know for sure, it’s best to ask questions first and act afterward. Walking the path of a Hoodoo means waiting, watching, and lots of listening.
Stephanie Rose Bird is an artist and author of several books that explore hoodoo and other magickal folkloric practices, including Sticks, Stones, Roots, and Bones: Hoodoo, Mojo and Conjuring with Herbs, Four Seasons of Mojo: An Herbal Guide for Natural Living, A Healing Grove, The Big Book of Soul, 365 Days of Hoodoo, and the soon-to-be-released, Spirits in my Bones. She is a former columnist in Sage Woman magazine and a current columnist for Witches and Pagans magazine. She is a contributor to Llewellyn Spell-a-Day, Llewellyn Magical Almanac, and Llewellyn Herbal Almanac. Bird lives in the Chicago area with her husband and animals, near her adult children.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF Lesson Plan Personal Narrative