This post examines how the Lime (a citrus fruit from the Rutaceae family of plants) was used in African-Jamaica spirit beliefs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Limes in Obeah practice
In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury described how an Obeah practitioner would use Lime juice to locate the duppy which was causing illness or misfortune to an individual. The practitioner would begin by consulting their amba/amber (a type of talisman, usually in the form of a small glass ball or bead), draw a circle on the floor, stick knives and forks into circle, then pour a mixture of ash and water over the area. While holding cottonwood leaves he or she would dig out the Obeah objects which had been ‘set’ to cause the harm. Once the objects were removed they were either burned or covered in a mixture of Lime juice and ash. Banbury believed that it was the smoky “ferment” caused by the mixing of the juice with the ash which confirmed the existence and power of the duppy (Banbury, p. 13).
Another healing technique involved Lime juice and ash being added to the contents of calabash cups which had been placed on a patient’s skin. The ashy mixture was believed to kill any Obeah substance which had entered the cups. (Ibid., pp. 12-13).
The idea that Limes could dispel harm is echoed in the information given to American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith that “‘If someone carries a cut Lime in his pocket the ghosts can’t work’” (Beckwith, p. 178).
Beckwith was also told by her interviewees that Lime juice was used to prevent money being taken. Obeah practitioners would ‘prepare’ a coin so that if it was given to another person, it would draw their money away to the coin’s original owner. To prevent this from happening, people would squeeze Lime juice over their coins (Ibid., pp. 111).
Limes in Myal ritual
There is an example from the 18th century of Lime being used in Myal rituals. The English planter and historian Edward Long wrote that Lime juice could be used as a means to revive a dancer from the death-like trance they had fallen into during the dance performed to call down spirits (Ibid., p. 142). A ritual leader, described by Long as an “obeah man,” would firstly give an infusion to a dancer who would collapse into a stupor. The leader would then administer another infusion containing Lime juice or vinegar and the person would come around as if from the dead (Long, p. 417).
Next time… we head back to the animal world to check out if the little mouse lurking in the graveyard is not all it appears to be.
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).
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).
Edward Long, The History of Jamaica or General Survey of Ancient and Modern State of that Island: With Reflections on its Situations, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws and Government (reprint, with a new introduction by George Metcalf, London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd, 1970, of orig. edn, London: T. Lowndes, 1774, 3 vols, vol III).
Image credits: photograph by H.R. Sparkes