Lizards in African-Jamaican Spirit Lore

Lizards have briefly made an appearance in Nature and Supernatural Nature (see “Cotton Trees (ceiba)” and “How to remove lizards if they become stuck in your arm”  before. This month they get a whole post of their own as I look at the connections between Lizards and the African-Jamaican spirit world. As this blog is based around the writings of American anthropologist and folklorist Martha Warren Beckwith. I’ll begin with what she found out about Lizards in Jamaican spirit lore.

Beckwith discovered that toads, frogs and Lizards, especially the green Lizard, had a bad reputation because of their use in Obeah (Beckwith, p. 111). Lizards which lived in cottonwood trees growing in graveyards were particularly feared as they were believed to be duppies, spirits of the dead (Ibid, p. 123).

Beckwith was researching and writing in the 1920s. Four decades later American folklorist MacEdward Leach also noted the belief that duppies could take the form of toads, snakes and Lizards (Leach, pp. 68, 72).


Anthropologist George Simpson researching Jamaican folk religions in the early 1950s found that followers of the Revival faith feared Lizards as they believed they were duppies (Simpson, p. 347). Such fears were based on the idea that in amphibian guise the duppy could cause physical harm: for example, there was a belief that if it took on the form of a frog it could cause knee/foot pain or tumours in the stomach (Ibid, p. 347).

As well as the idea that Lizards and other reptiles could be possessed by duppies, dread of Lizards in particular was attributed to the fact that they were part of the ‘tool kit’ of Obeah practitioners, the reptiles being either trained to cause harm or used in powdered form as poison (Hurston, p. 204).

They could also be placed in people’s bodies by Obeah practitioners to cause injury or death. At the end of the 19th century, the African-Jamaican clergyman and author of Jamaica Superstitions (1984), Thomas Banbury commented that:

 “Lizards, spiders and even snakes, &c., have been passed by stools, and vomited up by people. These were swallowed young in water unawares…” (Banbury, p. 17).

Which type of Lizard?

Whilst Beckwith mentioned that it was the green Lizard that was most feared in Jamaican folk beliefs, Simpson said that it was tree Lizards (also called “street duppies”, “African duppies” or “greenguanas”) (Simpson, p. 346) which people were most wary of. I think both Beckwith’s “green Lizard” and Simpson’s “tree Lizard” are most likely Anoles, a member of the Dactyloiade family. Zora Neale Hurston named the Gallowass as the powdered Lizard used as a form of poison. I can’t find this exact name so I’m assuming she meant the Galliwasp Lizard (Celeste occiduus) which was once widespread in Jamaica and believed to be venomous (Hurston, p. 241).

Next time… my annual International Women’s Day post.


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).

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).

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).

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

George Eaton Simpson, “Jamaican Revivalist Cults”, Social and Economic Studies, vol. 5, no. 4 (December 1956), pp. i-iv, 321-442, v-vii.

Image credits: turquoise anole by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Polynesian Trees of the Dead

Much of this blog’s content is based on studies I did into the Jamaican fieldwork of the American anthropologist, Martha Warren Beckwith (1879-1959). However, Beckwith is perhaps better known for her Hawaiian research: for example, The Hawaiian Romance of Laieikawai (1919), Hawaiian Mythology (1940) and The Kumulipo, A Hawaiian Creation Chant (1951). For this month’s post I will be looking at three trees which have connections to the spirit lore of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia.

The Kuikui – (Aleurites molucannus) AKA candlenut

In Hawaiian spirit lore the Kuikui tree was believed to provide a means by which souls of the dead could find their way to the spirit world. To achieve this, the soul must grab hold of a branch which appears to be dry and brittle but is, in fact, green and healthy. The branch will fling the soul into the next life – either up to the world of the gods or down into the underworld. If a soul fails to do this, it runs the risk of losing its way and being fated to remain earthbound (Beckwith, p. 157).

In an alternate version of the soul’s journey cited by Beckwith, the soul goes to a leaping place to begin its passage to the next world. At the leaping place stands a tree named Ulu-la’ti-o-waka (Beckwith doesn’t’ give the species) surrounded by little children. One half of the tree is fresh and green, the other dry and brittle. Although they look like they may break, the soul should aim to take hold of the dry branches not the green ones; if it clasps a green branch it will be thrown into the underworld. Using the dry branches the soul must proceed to the top of the tree and then climb down via the trunk. At the bottom, small children again await to guide the soul away from the land of the dead (Ibid., p. 156).

A Rarotonga variant states that climbing the dry branches of the Kuikui will take you to the underworld (Ibid., p. 158).




The Bua AKA Betel Nut Palm Tree (Areca catechu)

In Mangaia a large bua tree “with fragrant blossoms” and a branch for each of the main gods also acts as a ladder to the spirit world. The soul must climb onto the branch dedicated to his or her family’s god. Then they either leap into the sky to be with the gods and ancestral spirits or fall into a giant net to go to the domain of Miru, goddess of the dead (aka Milu, god of the dead in the Hawaiian pantheon) (Ibid., p. 158).

Beckwith found similar beliefs in Rarotonga where souls climb an ancient tree and fall in to Miru’s net to face an afterlife of torment (Ibid., p. 158).



Akeake (possibly Dondonaea viscosa)

In the Chatham Islands, Beckwith noted that the souls of dead Moriori chiefs go to a certain spot in Perau where they climb the branches of an ancient Akeake Tree to reach the spirit world (Ibid., p. 158).

On a poignant note, Beckwith also recounted that in Fiji part of the soul’s journey to the land of the dead takes it past an unnamed tree. Souls of children cling to the tree and ask how their parents are doing in the world of the living. (Ibid., p. 158).



Next time… I continue on the theme of trees but this time in Jamaica where I take a look at the lore surrounding one of the creatures that inhabits the mighty cottonwood (Ceiba) trees.


Martha Warren Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (reprint, with a new introduction by Katherine Luomala, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1940).

Image credits:  Kuikui by Forest & Kim Starr –

Bua/Betel Nut Palm by Pratheepps –

Akeake by Bushmansfriend –

Diamonds and Figs

Martha Warren Beckwith included this intriguing piece of folklore regarding Fig Trees in her book, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (1929).

On the morning of New Year’s Day, lay a white cloth under a Fig Tree and place two glasses on it. At midnight blossom from the Fig Tree will fall into one of the glasses. Two white men will appear, drop a diamond on the cloth, and then leave (Beckwith, p. 40).

I find this piece of folklore mysterious as it leaves a number of unanswered questions: for example, who are the two white men and why leave two glasses when only one diamond is given? It’s difficult to say even which kind of Fig Tree is referenced as a wide variety of Ficus grow in Jamaica.

Hill Close chrysanthemums - Oct 2020 002

One that that struck me when researching this post is that, for many Fig Trees, the blossom isn’t visible; it’s enclosed within what becomes the fruit. Would that make the likelihood of Fig blossom falling a rare and unusual occurrence so the probability of actually being given a diamond would be an extremely unlikely event?

Next time… a slight detour to Polynesia to look the lore surrounding Trees of the Dead.


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).

Image credits: Photo of young Figs on Tree by H.R. Sparkes