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The Gullah Geechee Tradition of 'Haint Blue' Paint Keeps the Spirits Away

Haints
If you wander through coastal Georgia and South Carolina, expect to see porch ceilings painted in beautiful shades of robin's egg blue, still commonly used throughout the lowcountry today. Lake Lou/Flickr ([CC BY 2.0)

Creaky footsteps, eerie cries and flickering lights — all signs that many people might say prove a house is haunted. But in parts of the American South, ghosts aren't necessarily so subtle. The shape-shifting, skin-shedding, witch-like spirits known as "haints" are believed to be capable of stealing a victim's energy, sometimes suffocating or even drowning their unlucky prey.

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What Are Haints?

It's possible the name haint was derived from the word "haunt," but it has its own meaning and complex cultural context. A haint is a restless ghost who has not left the world, but has remained behind to haunt the living with trickery that is often harmless, but sometimes more sinister in nature. The lore of the haints in the U.S. can be traced back to the lowcountry — a 200-mile (322-kilometer) area of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. The area became home to the Gullah Geechee people, slaves and their descendants brought to America from west and central Africa. The slaves bonded together to form a strong common culture, community and language, including their spiritual beliefs about haints and the tools necessary to outwit them.

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Warding Off the Haints

Due to the vengeful and tricky intentions of haints, warding them off is understandably a priority. Hoodoo, sometimes referred to as rootwork, conjure or lowcountry voodoo, is a spiritual and magical practice of the Gullah people that employs the power of herbs, among other things, to offer protection from evil.

One hoodoo practice is to carry a mojo, a small bag of herbs wrapped by a traditional rootworker. But there are many hoodoo practices, each specifically aimed at the type of haint it's targeted to thwart. One kind of haint, the boo hag, was known to steal a person's skin and wear it to blend in among the living during the day. But at night, the boo hag would shed the skin and go looking for a victim to "ride," depleting the victim's energy or possibly even suffocating them. Roger Pinckney, author of "Blue Roots" and "Got My Mojo Workin'," enumerates a few tactics used to scare off these nocturnal haints, in an email interview. "Hags are only active at night. They have an obsessive-compulsive disorder that compels them to count. A strainer on a doorknob or a broom cross the doorway, rice or sesame seed (benne seed) thrown on the floor. The hag will stop and count, over and over 'till day-clean run em.' Salt on the floor helps as it dehydrates the shed skin and makes it impossible for the boo hag to put it back on."

Another common haint, the plat-eye, is a shape-shifting spirit that can show up as anything from a beautiful woman to a two-headed hog. But good luck getting rid of this one. "Nothing much you can do about the plat-eye," says Pinckney. "If you have committed some gross spiritual offense, all you can do is try to make it right. Some (people) carry whiskey. If a plat-eye gets after you, pour a little on the ground and run like hell. The plat-eye will likely stop to lick it up."

But in the Gullah culture of the lowcountry, the most visible and powerful form of defense against haints is the color blue, derived from indigo, which holds a deeply spiritual — and equally dark — meaning rooted in the history of the early American slave economy.

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The Rise of Indigo Dye in America

The indigo (indigofera tinctoria) plant is the natural source of the bold blue color that's been prized for centuries across cultures for its spiritual power and as a symbol of wealth. It was so valuable it earned the name blue gold, mostly due to the specialized and laborious processes required to extract the dye from the indigo plant. The cultivation practices were used by numerous ancient civilizations and date back five centuries in parts of Africa.

When the Europeans colonized America, they found that the indigo plant thrived in the subtropical, marshy lands of the lowcountry. Given the need for experienced indigo workers, plantation owners bought and exploited the skills of African slaves. By the mid-18th century, indigo had become one of America's most valuable exports — lining the pockets of plantation owners on the backs of the people who grew it.

"Blue was available to the Gullah from the colonial cultivation of indigo, where they used the dregs from the indigo vats, but the spiritual power of blue is a worldwide belief," says Pinckney. Mixing the dregs, or leftover remnants, in a pit with lime, milk and other pigments, they formed a shade of robin's egg blue paint that would become known as 'haint blue.' The lowcountry is a land of blue water and blue sky. The blue paint tricks the spirits into thinking they've stumbled into water, which they cannot cross, or tumbled into the sky, falling farther away from their victims. Slathered on the doors, windowsills and porch ceilings of their homes, it served to create a safety barrier against the invisible and destructive haints that roamed the lowlands looking for souls to haunt.

Today the tradition of using haint blue has gone mainstream, shifting from shacks to grand houses and design magazines. Many southerners find it creates an expansive feel or are simply following in the footsteps of family or neighbors, often without the awareness of the color's historical significance.

If you find yourself sitting under the blue of a porch ceiling or driving past a grand home outlined in the soft haint blue hue, you're encompassed by a tradition that continues to induce calm but one that cannot be separated from the troubled history of America's past. And if you're a believer in ghosts, you better look out. The haints that can't get into the house may very well still be lurking just around the corner.

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