Rollin’ Calf (part 1): “a very bad duppy indeed”

Time for some Halloween spookiness. This month’s post features a duppy  which Martha Beckwith described as an “especially dangerous duppy”. According to Beckwith, the Rollin’ Calves live in:

“the roots of cottonwood trees and in clumps of bamboo but also in caves and deserted houses.”

They leave these abodes at night to “follow sugar wains because of their love of molasses, or to break into cattle pens.”

Beckwith was told that, as well as Obeah practitioners,

“[m]urderers and butchers and I know not how many other reprobates become Rolling-calves when they die.”

Folklorist MacEdward Leach also noted that butchers were likely to become Calves after death, especially those who “give short weight”.

cropped calf

Beckwith described the Calf as looking like a black and white goat with blazing red eyes. Its back feet are those of a goat whilst the front pair consist of one human foot and one horse’s hoof. It has a collar round its neck with a chain attached which drags along the ground. Writing in the early twentieth century, Frank Cundall  quoted an informant who said that Satan gave the Calf the chain to warn people of its approach.

When it came to the other forms that the Rolling Calf may take, Beckwith cited Thomas Banbury. According to Banbury Rollin’ Calves may appear as a:

 “cat, dog, hog, goat, horse or bull, but the most dangerous is the brindled cat [see picture below], and… it [the Calf] has the power to grow from the size of a cat or dog to that of a horse or bull.”

millie - cropped

Unwary travellers are most likely to encounter Rollin’ Calves at night. MacEdward Leach noted how Calves will try to kill their victims by breathing their “hot breath” on them.

As to the Calf’s name. Martha Beckwith believed that rollin’ meant roaming. However Leach said she had got this wrong. In his view, rollin’ means roaring.

Next time… How to prevent a Rollin’ Calf breathing its hot breath on you. Then back to things arboreal with more on the Tree of Good and Evil.


Sources (in order of first appearances in text)

Title quote from Black Roadways, p. 100.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), pp. 100-101.

MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81, p. 69.

Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), pp. 87-94, p. 91.

Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), in Black Roadways, p. 100.

Image credits: Rollin’ Calf illustration by abookofcreatures (© A Book Of Creatures) –

Photograph of brindled cat by Simon Noel. Brindled cat posed by Millie.






The God Wood Tree (Bursera simaruba)

AKA Birch Gum, Red Birch, West Indian Birch, Turpentine Tree, Incense Tree and Gumbo Limbo.

I first came across the plant featured in this month’s post in Tell My Horse (1938), Zora Neale Hurston’s account of her travels in Jamaica and Haiti. Whilst visiting the Maroon town of Accompong, Hurston was introduced to someone she described as their “chief medicine man”. He took Hurston to visit the God Wood tree which she wrote was so-called because it was “the first tree that ever was made. It is the original tree of good and evil.”

The medicine man (Hurston doesn’t name him) then performed a ritual to stop his enemies from attacking him. In Hurston’s words:

 “He took a strong nail and a hammer with him and drove a nail into the tree up to the head with three strokes, dropped the hammer and walked away rapidly without looking back.”

Unfortunately, the reader is left wondering if his methods were effective or not as all Hurston wrote of the outcome was that she was sent to bring his hammer back!

However, as Hurston went on to recount other successful examples of the medicine man’s healing techniques and manipulation of the natural world, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the efficacy of his tree ritual.

god wood tree



Who was the medicine man?

As Hurston’s account indicates, the medicine man had powers beyond the role of a doctor treating physical ailments. James White, another Maroon medicine man with similar powers was one of the American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith’s informants.  I mentioned in the earlier post on “How to Remove Lizards If They Become Stuck In Your Arm”  that White not only had   “reputation for knowledge of herb medicines” but also “of songs to raise the dead”.

The powers Beckwith and Hurston ascribed to the medicine men they encountered fit very much with those of Maroon fete-man described by the anthropologist Kenneth Bilby in his book, True-Born Maroons. To quote Bilby the fete-man is ‘a Kromanti ritual specialist and healer’ and a “spiritual warrior” with an expert knowledge of the local flora or “weeds”. The fete-man would lead Kromanti Play, a ceremony which involved dancing, drumming and possession by the spirits. In his role as a “spiritual warrior”, he would manipulate spirits to fight those manipulated by another spirit worker”. Therefore I’m guessing both White and Hurston’s anonymous medicine man were fete-men – although I’m not sure which term Maroons themselves (i.e. fete-man, medicine man, or both?) would have used in the era when both women were doing their Jamaican fieldwork.

Next time…. after a Halloween interlude (warning – may contain duppy lore), I’ll be further investigating the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.



Sources (in order of appearance in the text)

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with a new foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938), pp. 25, 27, 29-30.

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), pp. 4, 49.

Kenneth M. Bilby, True-Born Maroons (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), pp. 289, 111.

Image credits: photograph of Busera simaruba by Louise Wolff (darina):

The Legend of the Rollright Witch

There are a number of legends concerning witches and witchcraft associated with the Rollright Stone circle complex and its wider locale. Here I’ll be focussing on the story of the witch who became an elder tree as mentioned in my last post, “Jesus Tree That Bled”.

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The King Stone


Many centuries ago, when England was ruled by various tribes, a king was attempting to become ruler of the entire land. During the course of his travels he and his army arrived at Rollright hill. There he met a witch who owned the land standing at the foot of the hill. The witch told the king:

 “Seven long strides shalt thou take.

If Long Compton [a nearby village] thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be”

The king, convinced that climbing the hill would be an easy endeavour, replied:

“Stick, stock, stone,

As King of England I shall be known.”

However, the witch caused the land to rise so the king was unable to complete his climb in the required seven strides. She then invoked her curse:

“As Long Compton thou canst not see,

King of England thou shalt not be.

Rise up, stick and stand still, stone,

For king of England thou shalt be none;

Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be

And I myself an eldern tree.”

So the king, his army and a group of knights who had been plotting in the background were all turned to stone. The king became the King Stone, his army the stone circle, and the knights, the four stones of the Whispering Knights. The witch then transformed herself into an elder tree. They remain at Rollright to this day.

Rollrights 039.jpg
The Whispering Knights

The (Pre-)History Bit

The Rollright stones were made from oolithic limestone between 3,800 BCE and 1,500 BCE. Aside from the King’s Men stone circle, in a nearby field the group of rocks which make up the Whispering Knights comprised the walls of an ancient burial chamber. Across the road from the stone circle, the King Stone, actually of a much later date than his “army”, acted as a marker for a Bronze Age burial ground.

Rollrights 018.jpg
The King’s Men


Next time… back to the Caribbean for the God-wood Tree (aka Birch Gum).



The Rollright rhyme comes from Meg Elizabeth Atkins, Haunted Warwickshire (London: Robert Hale, 1981), p. 114.

Image credits: Photos of the Rollrights by Simon Noel