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).

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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





Water Lilies (Nymphaea)

In previous posts I have examined the lore surrounding a Jamaican water spirit, the River Mumma (aka Riba Mumma, Rubba Missis, Fair Maid, and River Maid). This month, intrigued by a comment made by Arvilla Payne-Jackson and Mervyne Alleyne in Jamaican Folk Medicine (2004) that white Water Lilies could be used to summon River Mummas, I will be looking for possible connections between the Jamaican water spirit and Nymphaea (Payne-Jackson & Alleyne, p. 112).

The first connection between the two is perhaps the most obvious one. Water Lilies, as their name suggests, are aquatic plants which have their roots in the soil at the bottom of bodies of water while their leaves and flowers float upon the surface. The River Mumma inhabits rivers, lakes and ponds.

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The next connection can be found in the plant’s Latin name – Nymphaea derives from a Greek word meaning “water nymph”.

An African connection?

In my previous posts on the River Mumma  I examined how she was a mix of European and African water spirit beliefs. With this in mind, I checked to see if there was a similar linkage between African water spirits and water lilies, particularly white Nymphaea. However, although water lilies grow in parts of Africa, so far I have yet to find any lore linking them with African water spirits like Mami Wata.

However, there is an African connection if we turn to ancient Egypt where a significant number of examples of Nymphaea linked to the spirit world appear in a religious/mythological context. For instance, from the Fifth dynasty (2465-2323 BCE) onwards, white and blue Nymphaea were regarded as symbols of creation, death and rebirth. In one creation myth the sun is said to have originated from a lotus flower (Nymphaea lotus) which grew out of the primeval water. This original divine lotus flower, Nefertum, was later depicted as a handsome young man wearing Water Lilies on his head or with a lotiform headdress.


The white Water Lily was linked to death and resurrection because its petals unfold at night and close in the morning. The blue Water Lily (Nymphaea caerulea), which opens its petals in the morning and closes them in the evening, came to symbolise the death and resurrection of the god Osiris (Emboden, p. 397). The falcon or falcon-headed god Horus in his aspect as Harpokrates (“Horus the Child”), the son of Isis and Osiris, is sometimes depicted sitting in a Water Lily growing out of the waters of creation (Wilkinson, p. 132).

Most probably because of their association with death and rebirth, Nymphaea have been found in a number of royal tombs among piles of offerings to the dead and painted on unguent jars which accompanied the body (Emboden, p. 399).

As well as in painted form, Water Lilies/Lotuses were carved onto the top of pillars and columns. They may also have been used as part of religious practice. William Emboden puts forward a persuasive argument in his article, “The Sacred Narcotic Lily of the Nile”, that the blue Water Lily was consumed by priests as its narcotic content helped them to reach a state of religious ecstasis’ (Ibid., p. 407).

While in the ancient Egyptian context the plant is often called a “lotus”, Embolden contends that this was not the case for early depictions of Nymphaea as the lotus only became native in Egypt after c. 700 BCE when they were introduced by the Assyrians. He maintains that early glyphs found in tomb paintings and texts are clearly Water Lilies rather than lotuses; for example, the Book of the Dead which has been dated to c. 1500-1350 BCE contains a chapter called “Transformation into a water lily flower” (Ibid., p. 399).

Next time… There’s a twist of citrus to Nature and Supernatural Nature as I look the use of Limes in late 19th and early 20th century Jamaican folk religions.


William A. Emboden, “The Sacred Narcotic Lily of the Nile: Nymphaea Caerulea.” Economic Botany, vol. 32, no. 4, 1978, pp. 395–407. JSTOR, Accessed 28 May 2021.

Arvilla Payne-Jackson, and Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004).

Angela P. Thomas, Egyptian Gods and Myths (Risborough: Shire Publications, Ltd., 2001).

Richard P. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London, Thames & Hudson, 2018).

Image credits: 1.) Water lily by Simon Noel and 2.) Carved columns at Esna, Egypt by Marc Ryckaert, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Duck Ants

In this month’s post I’m looking at one of the smallest creatures associated with the African-Jamaican spirit world of the early 20th century – the Duck Ant.  Duck Ants are a type of termite/Nasutitermes which feed mainly on wood and can cause a large amount of damage to a building if they take up residence there. They usually make their nests in trees but they can also infest houses causing a large amount of damage. During her Jamaican fieldwork Martha Warren Beckwith described the persistence of a Duck Ant colony once they had infested a house. She noted the termites had made a trail in a straight line beginning in the rafters then across the ceiling and down a wall. If the trail was removed they began it again (Beckwith, p. 123).

Frederic Cassidy in the Dictionary of Jamaican English described the Duck Ant as being white and rather short; its name arising from its duck-like walk (Cassidy, p. 162). Cassidy gave their Latin name as being N. pilifrons but I have been unable to corroborate this (Ibid., p. 162).

In late post-emancipation Jamaica, Duck Ants were regarded as creatures of ill omen. For example, Beckwith commented that “Duck ants are feared as duppies” (Beckwith, p. 123). In an early twentieth century collection of African-Jamaican folklore, Frank Cundall included the information that the presence of Duck Ants in a house was a sign of an impending death (Cundall, p. 93). As at the time, many of houses of the working classes and peasantry contained a large amount of wood and other organic materials like bamboo, did the Ants’ destructive nature influence their association with death and the spirits of the dead ?


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The use of Duck Ants in folk medicine

Despite their destructive habits and their bad reputation in spirit lore, Duck Ants, or at least their nests, were employed in a healing and protective capacity.  A Duck Ants’ nest would be burned, along with other ingredients including cow’s hooves, horns and sulphur, to help rid a house of bothersome duppies (Ibid., p. 90).

Michele Johnson and Brian Moore cite a tragic example of a nest being used to cure yaws in the late 19th century. Yaws is an infectious disease which causes growths all over the body with the feet being particularly vulnerable. In this case a Duck Ants’ nest and horse dung were placed in a hole and set alight. The patient then lowered her feet into the burning hole. As may be imagined the results were not good and the woman had to have both feet amputated.

The connection between Duck Ants and human feet also appears in a piece of African-Jamaican agriculture lore noted by Beckwith to prevent crop theft.  If a Duck Ants’ nest containing a piece of silver was placed in a field accompanied by the phrase “I pay you to do your work,” being spoken, it was believed that the thief’s foot would swell up in resemblance of the shape of a Duck Ants’ nest (Beckwith, p.130).

Both this crime prevention technique and the treatment for yaws suggest the underlying idea found in both in folk medicine and sympathetic magic that the name or shape of an animal or plant relates to the part of the human body it is being used to affect to affect. The Duck Ant is linked to lore which affects human feet because of their link to actual ducks; the ants’ gait being reminiscent of a duck’s walk. Water fowl have distinctive feet hence the association.

Next time…. I venture into the life aquatic with a look at the link between River Mummas and water lilies


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).

F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2002).

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

Image credits:Identifying termites” by H.R. Sparkes