Trees as pathways in Haitian Vodou

In this month’s post I’m looking at plant lore associated with the spirit world in Haiti; in particular on how trees are embedded in Vodou cosmology and worship.

Trees have a number of roles in Haitian Vodou. They provide homes for the spirits, the lwa (alternate spelling, loa), and the dead. They are used as natural altars and as boundary markers for the temple of hounfo (ounfo/ hounfort).

Trees are also associated with the Vodou pantheon. For example, in the 1950s film-maker and ethnographer Maya Deren noted how the most ancient of the Vodou gods are known as “loa racine” or root loa (Deren, p. 36). Legba, one of the major lwa of Haiti and opener of the gates between the human world and that of the spirits, is at times represented as a tree ‘stretching skywards (Deren, p. 99)

The cottonwood tree (ceiba) symbolises Loco, who Robert Voeks describes as the lwa of “vegetation”. Offerings to him are laid in its roots (Voeks, p. 73). Loco Attiso meaning ‘he of the trees’

In Haitian cosmology, an island, the Grand Bois D’Ilet, lies below the seas, a place of “submerged forests”. Deren wrote that here the lwa live and souls of the dead arrive (Deren, p. 36). Its ruler is Legba who in this role carries the name Grand Bois (or ‘Great Wood’).

Trees are further referenced in the name of Loco Attiso (meaning ‘he of the trees’) another of the Loco ‘family’ of lwa, (Deren, p. 146).

 

Mapou_tree_in_Petit-Goave,_Haiti

 

The Poteau-mitan

As well as being used as natural altars or as sites to lay offerings to the lwa, trees form part of the peristyle, or ceremonial enclosure, of a Vodou temple. The poteau-mitan (poto mitan), the centre post of the peristyle, is made from wood. In Vodou ceremonies dances take place around the poteau-mitan and offerings are placed at its base. Down it the lwa enter the peristyle to possess the living. In another connection to trees, Loco is in charge of the poteau-mitan (Ibid., p. 146).

Deren described the poteau-mitan as not only a physical tree being present in the temple enclosure, but also as embodying the idea of the “stylized tree” found throughout Vodou. This image of a tree has its branches and roots spreading out equally on both sides, and its trunk reaching up into the heavens and down into the “waters of the abyss” (Ibid., p. 36).

Just as the lwa can travel down the wooden centre post of the peristyle, the tree image provides a bridge between the world of the spirits and the physical world, the world of the dead and the world of the living.

 

Next time….   a more detailed look at Legba and his association with the sign of the cross then it’s back to the plant lore.

 

Sources

Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti (reprint, with a foreword by Joseph Campbell, New York: McPherson & Company, 2004, of orig. edn, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953).

Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo (New York and London: New York University Press, 2003).

Robert Voeks, “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas”, Geographical Review, vol. 83, no. 1 (Jan., 1993), pp. 66-78.

Image credits: Photo of Mapou tree in Petit Goave, Haiti by Bdx via wikimedia -(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Pimento (Pimenta officinalis)

Pimento trees can be found growing on the upland and hillside areas of Jamaica. Between July/August and September, they produce berries which are ground into a powder, Allspice, used to season food (Beckwith, p. 25). However, for this post it is the lore attached to the wood of the Pimento (Pimenta officinalis) which I’ll be examining.

240px-AllspiceBowl

In Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938), the American anthropologist and novelist, Zora Neale Hurston, wrote of her experiences when attending a Nine Night in St Thomas.

After one man entered the yard where the Nine Night was taking place, a nervous air arose amongst those present. Hurston was told that this was because the man was carrying an “Eboline” stick (Hurston, p. 51). Eboline sticks were made from Pimento wood cut to about a yard (91.44 cm) long. The wood was then roasted carefully in a fire so that the bark peeled off. Next the stick was reheated and buried in a grave, preferably the grave of an East Indian. After two or three weeks, during which time the duppy of the grave’s inhabitant would have entered the wood, the stick was dug up. Then it was polished and brass wire was wound around both ends and sometimes round the middle. The stick was then named – always a female name (Ibid., p. 52). Hurston doesn’t say why this has to be so.

pimento illustration

East Indians in Jamaica

What caught my eye when reading Hurston’s account is her mention that the preferred grave for the Pimento wood to be buried in was one belonging to someone from India or of Indian heritage. Other early/mid-twentieth-century collectors of Jamaican folklore also mention the power of East Indian duppies. For example, in Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929) Martha Warren Beckwith cited the idea that such duppies were one of the most “malignant” form of duppy (Frank Cundall quoted in Beckwith, p. 98) The American folklorist MacEdward Leach wrote that East Indian duppies were believed to be “very bad” and were the go-to duppies if you wanted to harm another person.

One clue as to why the duppies of East Indians were considered to be so powerful appears in Alice Spinner’s collection of Jamaican folklore, A Reluctant Evangelist and Other Stories (1896). She wrote that those from India were believed by African-Jamaicans “to be almost as wise as the Obeah man in ‘duppy’ lore”. (Spinner, p. 320)

Indians arrived in Jamaica in significant numbers in the nineteenth century to work as indentured labourers. Being indentured meant that a person could not leave their employer or change job for 5 years. The Caribbean historian Gad Heuman has noted that because “indentured labourers had to do the least attractive jobs”, they were looked down on by the free black population. This in turn led to the development of “negative stereotypes” amongst both black and whites in regard to Indians (Heuman, pp. 105-106).

It is possible that such stereotypes, combined with the mystical elements of Indian religions, contributed to the idea that East Indian duppies were considered to be some of the most dangerous in Jamaica.

Next time…. heading to a different part of the Caribbean with a look at some of the spiritual connections of Haitian trees.

Sources

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).

Gad Heuman, The Caribbean (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006).

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.

Alice Spinner, A Reluctant Evangelist and Other Stories (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1896).

Image credits: Illustration by McCormick and company – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pimento-allspice.png

Photo of allspice berries by Jonathunder – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AllspiceBowl.JPG

 

 

 

Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

In this month’s post I’m looking at the duppy lore surrounding the popular culinary herb, Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum – AKA Basil and St Joseph’s Wort), and how that lore may have arisen.

If Sweet Basil is planted by the front or back door of a house, it can stop duppies and other malevolent spirits from entering the property.

It can also provide a warning if a duppy is present. In Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies, Sylvester Ayre writes of a belief that if scent suddenly wafts up from a Basil plant, this is an indication that a duppy has come in to the house (Ayre p. 16).

But how did Sweet Basil get the reputation for being both an early warning system and a prophylactic against evil?

blog garlic 006

One reason may be attributed to the plant’s distinctive aroma. In previous posts I’ve mentioned how strong smelling plants were frequently used in Jamaica (and elsewhere) to keep unwanted entities at bay. Writing in the early 20th century on how Jamaican Rosemary (Croton linearis Jacq.) was used to protect a person from malign influences, the American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith attributed this belief to its strong smell. Beckwith’s fieldwork amongst African-Jamaicans in rural areas of Jamaica had shown that other plants with a pungent odour were used for similar purposes. (Beckwith, Black Roadways, p. 94, and “Notes on Jamaican Ethnobotany”, pp. 26, 27)

(For another example of a plant utilised for protection against duppies because of its strong scent, see my post on Guinea Weed)

A second reason why Sweet Basil is believed to have protective qualities may be because it has been used in traditional medicine as a means to treat intestinal worms. In Jamaican Folk Medicine, Arvilla Payne-Jackson and Mervyn C. Alleyne include Ocimum basilicum in their lists of plants used as a vermifuge (Payne-Jackson and Alleyne, p. 168). Worm-weed (Chenopodium ambrosioides, L.), another plant employed for this purpose, is also believed to drive away duppies.

It may be possible that because certain plants with emetic or purgative qualities can rid the body of unwanted matter, this has influenced the idea that they can also dispel evil spirits.

 

The Christian connection

Sweet Basil has a number of associations with Christianity. Donald Watts notes that on the Greek island of Chios it is considered a holy plant because of a story linking Basil to St Helena’s search for the True Cross. Helena (c. 250-330), the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity in the early 4th century. Around 324-326 CE, she travelled through the Holy Land searching for sacred Biblical sites and the location of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. According to one legend, Helena was guided by the scent of Basil plants to the cross’s location (Watts, p. 24).

There is another belief that Sweet Basil flowers at dawn on Epiphany – the day in the Christian calendar when the three wise men arrived at the stable and presented the infant Christ with gifts (Megas cited in Watts, p. 24).

I don’t know how widespread these particular examples of Basil lore were in the Caribbean. However, if they were well known, is it possible that Sweet Basil’s Biblical links were a contributing factor to its use for protection against evil in Jamaica?

 

 

Next time…  How Pimento wood was used to catch and control duppies

 

 

Sources

Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002).

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Notes on Jamaican 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).

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).

George A. Megas, Greek Calendar Customs (2nd edn, Athens: Philipottis, 1963.

D.C. Watts, Dictionary of Plant Lore (Amsterdam and London: Elsevier Academic Press 2007).

Image credits: pot of basil by H.R. Sparkes