Haint Blue and Southern Traditions
On a wall, it would just be considered light blue, sky blue, or perhaps robin’s egg blue, but paint your porch ceiling with it and it is automatically, unmistakably “haint blue.” The tradition of haint blue porch ceilings is deeply rooted in Southern folklore. It originated with the Gullah Geechee people who were brought to America to be slaves.
The Gullah came from different parts of Africa and spoke many different languages. These languages eventually intertwined with the English of their masters became Creole. As the languages blended, so did the story telling. Southerners began telling the Gullah folklore stories to their children and the Gullah began sharing Southern folklore with their children. Each culture added its own rhetorical elements to the original stories, making them unique to the region in which they were told.
Gullah folklore includes the story of an old witch who lived in the woods. She had one companion, an old razorback hog that she called Raw Head. One day, Raw Head was slaughtered by a hunter. Using her powers, she brought her only companion back to life, but his appearance had changed from that of a usual hog. He was scary. He walked upright and carried his head in his arms. Raw Head is the epitome of scary stories. He and his companion Bloody Bones have delighted and terrified Southern children for centuries now.
Folk traditions of the Gullah people included painting the ceilings of their porches in light shades of blue to ward off unwanted visitors, like Raw Head and Bloody Bones and other phantoms, evil spirits or apparitions. According to the Gullah, such spirits will see the blue ceilings and think that they are a part of the sky or a body of water. This color supposedly keeps the negative from entering the home. The tradition of haint blue porch ceilings on the shanties of the Gullah spread into the white culture. The blue pigmentation came from crushed indigo plants and the paint was made with lye. Because of the lye, unwanted insects like wasps, hornets and dirt daubers were repelled along with any evil spirits. The Gullah believed that it was the color, not the composition that deterred flying insects.
The word “haint” may be a derivative of the word “haunt,” but it has earned its own place in English linguistics. One online dictionary defines the word simply as “ghost,” but in southern folklore, a haint is much more than simply a ghost. It could be a monster, a witch or any restless spirit. Most of stories of haints were told to scare, delight and amuse children in an age before television and the Internet.
The tradition of using haint blue to paint front porch ceilings dates back to the 1700s. It began on the Carolina coasts where the Gullah were originally unloaded from ships. As slave trade spread throughout the South, so did the stories of haints, phantoms and spirits. So did the tradition of painting a porch ceiling haint blue.
In the Oakleigh Historic District of Mobile, haint blue porch ceilings can clearly be seen on the antebellum style homes. The southern cities of Savannah, Ga., Mandeville and New Orleans, La., and Memphis, Tenn. also have homes with haint blue porch ceilings. The phenomenon has even spread to the Florida Keys. Now to choose the right shade because there is no definite haint blue. Rather it is a series of hues ranging from pale green to lightest blue, mimicking both the colors of the ocean and the sky.
Folklore and traditions are two of my favorite things. I don’t know that haint blue will keep trouble from coming to my front door, but if it deters wasps, I’ll welcome it! I think I may just chance it. If the rain will ever stop, I’m off to Ace Hardware to purchase my paint, my “haint paint.”
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Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.