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Salt-Curse, A Linguistic and Cultural Problem

To: alt.lucky.w
From: catherine yronwode 
Subject: Salt-Curse, A Linguistic and Cultural Problem 
Date: Fri, 22 Sep 2000 18:46:30 -0800

Landa relayed a hoodoo spell that was collected by Harry M. Hyatt from
an African-American informant in the South during the 1930s, as follows,
rendering it in modern, plain English, whereas Hyatt had given it in
phonetic spelling:


9447. They say if you want a man and if a man come out your house - I
don't know what they [do but] I know you can keep them from your house.
You can take just as he comes out of the house and just take some pot
salt, and chunk 'em after them, saying, "You son of a bitch, don't come
back her no more." And he'll never come back to your house no more. (I
see you throw the salt after them.)

[Charleston, S. Car., (497), 539:4.]

And this discussion ensued:

LOL..I wonder if its just the salt or the nasty attitude? This one
made me laugh. Landa
LOL I would think maybe the attitude has a lot to do with it ... plus
a chunk of salt might hurt a tad bit ... :) gypsy
AH yes what powerful free verse incantation of warding. Donovan
I know, right? Such a subtle and sly way to cast a spell. I wonder if
the person leaving had a clue they weren't welcome back? Gee Whiz, you
don't need to hit me over the head with a chunk of salt twice. LOL. too
funny! Landa
LOL ... a simple "buzz off" would work just fine for me. Leia
Then again, if someone yelled that at you, would you WANT to come back?
:0P Lyz

While i am in awe of Landa's faithful daily transcriptions, i sometimes
feel that her technique of stripping away the dialect and regional
accents from Hyatt's informants in an effort to render the collected
African-American spells more "readable," also takes out too much
cultural context, allowing readers to forget that the subject of the
Hyatt spells is -- and always will be -- practical magic.

Obviously the people who laughed at spell 9447 thought to some degree
that the speaker was describing how to get rid of a man who was disliked
by yelling a curse while hitting him with a chunk of salt. 

Not so.

Informant 497 was specifically telling us how to deal with a suspected
witch by means of what i call "the salt-plus-curse spell" -- a well
known, quite traditional form of apotropaic magic against witches. 

At the risk of being a pedant (hey, if that's my greatest sin, i'm going
to heaven in a ground pea shell!), i have decided to examine this
misunderstood and laughed-at spell in rather a bit of detail, to see if
i cannot overcome your giggles by supplying enough cultural and
linguistic cues that you will be able to clearly understand a rural
Southern black person's speech from 1936. 

First, perhaps i can remove some of the spell's "laughability" quotient
for this audience by defining a few regionalisms:

    (1) "pot salt" is cooking salt or table salt, as opposed to block
salt or rock salt for use about the farm.

    (2) "chunk 'em" (sometimes spelled "chuck 'em") means "throw them"
-- it does not refer to chunks of salt at all. Furthermore, "throwing
after," "throwing behind" and "throwing for" are black slang terms that
refer to deploying magical items, as will be seen below. 

Second, any potential difficulty in understanding this spell was
compounded because Landa's transcription contained two typos in places
that would lead a reader to hear the exact OPPOSITE of what the speaker
was saying. Here is an interlineation of the typos:

9447. They say if you want a man and if a man come out your house

should be "if you DONŐT want a man," per Hyatt's phonetic version:

9447. Dey say if you don' want a man and if a man come out chure house

also, the word "her" -- 

saying, "You son of a bitch, don't come back her no more."

-- should be "HERE," per Hyatt's

saying, "Yo' son of a bitch, don' come back heah no mo'."

-- so  informant 497 was NOT talking about making a man who was formerly
"wanted" get away from an un-named "her" --  rather about making a man
who was "NOT wanted" get away from "HERE," that is, the house. 

Now, even with the religionalisms explained and the typos fixed, there
is still some ambiguity in the phrase "if you don't want a man and if a
man comes out of your house" 

Why is the man not wanted?: Is informant 497 simply giving vent to an
anti-social gesture, as some people on the list assumed, or is the
speaker deliberately letting some crucial piece of information go 

To a folklorist, the answer is -- fairly obviously -- the latter. 

In fact, the subject is witchraft. The man that "you don't want" is not
a pesky neighbor or a rejected suitor or a meddlesome relative. The man
that "you don't want" but cannot name is a hostile enemy witch who has
gotten into your house for the purpose of putting down powders, throwing
for you, laying a trick, stealing your hairs, or something of that

The problem that informant 497 faced was that even to SPEAK of
witchcraft -- not just to accuse someone, but to mention it at all -- is
unlucky and ought to be avoided. His or her solution to this problem was
to carefully avoid noting that the man that "you don't want" is a witch. 

How can a folklorist be sure that spell 9447 really *is* about
witchcraft if the informant never mentions the word "witch"? 

Well, Hyatt has done the job for us: he has sorted his collection of 
spells by type, and in this case we can get the subtext of spell 6447
from OTHER speakers in adjacent spells. Here is the previous spell:

9446. Ah've hear'd dat if a person come tuh yuh home an' yo' figuh
[figure] dat dey are not dere fo' de right purpose, dat aftah dey leave
out, chew kin take a han'ful of salt an' throw out behin' dem. An dey
won't come dere agin if dey have anythin' of 'em lak witchcraft.
[Waycross, Ga., (1061), 1720:5.]

Like informant 497, informant 1061 also avoids saying the word "witch."
and substitutes the coded phrase, "you figure that they are not there
for the right purpose." 

So informant 497's "man you don't want" is thus equivalent to informant
1061's "man who is not there for the right purpose."  

And what is the nature of this man? 

Luckily for us, informant 1061 was bolder than informant 497 -- or
perhaps estimated correctly that not every listener would understand the
coded phrase "not there for the right purpose" -- so after giving the
spell (and using the regionalism "throw out" which specifically means to
deploy a powdered magical agent) he or she added: "And they won't come
there again if they have anything of [about] them like witchcraft."

So there we have it. Informant 947's "man you don't want" is a witch.
Spell 6446 can now be thematically decoded as an anti-witch spell -- and
if we straighten out the speaker's typical colloqial pronoun-swapping,
substitute modern urban nouns and verbs for the rural regionalisms, and
render the text into standard Anglo-Saxon English speech, we get this


9447. They say if you don't want a man around your house because you
suspect him of witchcraft and if you see him coming out of your house --
you are thinking, "i don't know what he is doing there," but you do know
how you can keep witches from your house, so you just take some cooking
salt and throw it after him, saying a simple curse, such as, "You son of
a bitch, don't come back here again." And if he is a witch, he'll never
come back to your house again."   

That is the nature of the salt-and-curse spell in a nutshell: 

Problem: Someone whom you know from the local community is seen leaving
your home. 

Question: How do you determine what the intruder's intention really was? 

Answer: As soon as the person leaves, you throw table salt on the path
after him and curse him and IF THE PERSON IS A WITCH, he won't be able
to come back. 

Mechanism: Thrown salt and a spoken curse are a diagnostic magical tool
(and only secondarily a warding) because a witch will not be able to
return along the salted path. 

As a spell, throwing salt and cursing after a witch (singly or in
combination) is Germano-British in origin. Since slavery times it has
also become a staple spell in the Arican-American community, where the
salt is sometimes mixed with black pepper, which is an African
belief-survival. Hyatt recorded hundreds of "salt thrown after a
suspected witch" spells from all parts of the country, both in HCWR and
in an earlier book called "Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois" (FACI
for short).  

Back in 1998 or so, i selected a few of Hyatt's HCWR spells involving
salt and put them on a web page i had written about salt in
African-American folk magic. The URL is

About a year later, on my page about charms and spells used for magical
protection, i transcribed a number of spells involving salt and cursing
from FACI. Hyatt marked his sources by ethnicity in FACI, so you will
see "German," "Irish," and "Negro" salt spells, cursing spells, and
salt-and-cursing spells on that page. Go to the sections titled 
   "Protective Charms Deployed About the House," 
   "How to Prevent a Witch from Entering or Returning to Your Home,"
   "Protective Spells to Be Spoken Upon Meeting a Wtich," and 
   "How to Undo a Bewitchment or a Hoodoo Spell" 
The URL is

Okay, end of pedantic anthropology lesson for today. 

Please understand that i am not criticizing anyone for not understanding
informant 497 or for laughing at the regional dialect, i just wanted to
redeem the speaker from being seriously  misunderstood and to
demonstrate his or her value as a teacher. 

And thanks again, Landa, for keeping these spells coming! 
cat yronwode
Hoodoo in Theory and Practice -
No personal e-mail, please; just catch me in usenet; i read it daily. 
This post copyright (c) 2000 catherine yronwode. All rights reserved.

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