Asafetida Bags

Asafetida bags, small bags stuffed with pungent herbs and other ingredients, were worn to ward off disease and evil spirits, and to treat asthma, colds, or other respiratory ailments. The name derives from Asafoedita, a gum derived from the roots of the leek-like Ferula Asafoetida plant that was a key ingredient in the bags. These charms were common throughout the Southern Appalachians, and across the entire South, and in the varying dialects of the region could be pronounced as Asafetidy Bag or even as Acidify bag. The pungent odor of these charms is still strongly memorable to anyone who remembers wearing one, or even remembers being around anyone wearing one.

Apart from the key ingredient of asafetida gum, the bags could contain garlic, peppers, onions, or other strongly-scented plants and herbs. These bags would be worn either hung around the neck or pinned inside of clothing.

Asafoetida is a plant native to Northern Africa and the Mediterranean region, and has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use. The earliest mentions of the plant date back to the Eighth Century BCE, when it was included in an inventory of the gardens of a Babylonian King. The plant was prized in Classical antiquity as a substitute for the rare herb silphium, and is still used as a common ingredient is Punjabi vegetarian cooking. It also has a well-deserved reputation as an effective cure for indigestion in Afghanistan and Iraq. Asafoetida is used as remedy for a number digestive and respiratory ailments throughout North Africa.

This African connection strongly suggest that this piece of folk medicine was brought to the South by enslaved Africans and spread across the entire region. Dried Asafoetida gum was once sold in drugstores across the American South in the form of small plugs.

One of the most memorable aspects of asafoetida is its powerful odor. In its raw form, the gum smells like a particularly pungent onion. The scent is powerful enough that when kept with other spices or foods, asafoetida has to be kept very tightly sealed, or the odor will seep into other nearby foods.

Though, like many folk medicine traditions, use of the bags has declined in recent years, there are still people out there who will swear by them. There are also those who remember a cold being made better, or perhaps worse, having a grandmother hang a particularly smelly bag around their neck.

Sources

Cavender, Anthony Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Press, 2003

Cross, Tom Pete Witchcraft in North Carolina Studies in Philology, Volume XVI No. 3, July, 1919

Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians West Virginia University Press, 2008

Rehder, John B. Appalachian Folkways Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004

White, Newman Ivey the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Duke University Press, 1964

Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 2, Anchor, 1973

Young, Jason R. Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry Louisiana State University Press, 2007