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 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons