Three-foot Horse

Continuing the equine theme of my last post, this month I look at the lore surrounding the Three-foot Horse. Three-foot Horse is a duppy which, as its name suggests, appears in the form of a horse with one fore leg and two back legs (Cassidy & Le Page, p. 422). In the 1920s, anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith was told by George Parkes, one of her African-Jamaican interviewees that:

“Three-foot horse gallops through the moonlight faster than any living steed, and its breath is fatal to anyone upon whom it falls, but on dark nights or under the shadow of a tree one is safe from attack.” (Beckwith, p. 98).

Parkes also said that if you did manage to scare Three-foot Horse away but returned to the same spot where you had first encountered it and it sees you, it will “blow bad breath upon you”. However, Beckwith wondered if Parkes was describing a composite of Three-foot Horse and Rolling-calf”, as in his description both seemed to share the quality of toxic breath (Ibid., p. 100. See my post on the Rolling Calf  for a comparison).

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One big difference between Three-foot Horse and Rolling Calf is that the Horse isn’t afraid of moonlight (Ibid., p. 100). Not going out on moonlit nights was one of the tips given to Beckwith for avoiding an encounter with Three-foot Horse. Other advice includes hiding in the shadows or climbing a tree (Cundall, p. 91). An alternate method mentioned by Thomas Banbury, who collected Jamaican folk beliefs in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, was to ‘flog it with a whip held in the right hand or a tarred whip” (cited in Beckwith, p. 100).

Another illustration of the sinister nature of Three-foot Horse can be found in the tale of “Mr Bluebeard” in Walter Jekyll’s collection of Jamaican folk stories from the early twentieth century. The eponymous villain of the tale rides a three-legged horse (Jekyll, p. 35).

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American folklorist MacEdward Leach found that in the Orange Valley area in Trelawney, the Three-foot Horse was believed to be heard every November and also at Christmas time (Leach, p. 71).

Three–foot Horse is also associated with Christmas in Zora Neale Hurston’s account of the duppy. Hurston was told by Maroons in Accompong that it would appear around that time to join in the Jonkonnu festivities (Hurston, p. 26). Jonkonnu is a Christmas parade of dancers wearing animal masks, horned headdresses, and dressed as characters from English mummers’ plays such as Jack-in-the-Green and the Doctor. It also contains contained elements believed to be African like animal masks and headdresses as well as the house/houseboat headdress worn by the lead dancer.

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Hurston gave an alternate name for the creature, “Three-leg Horse”, and thought its origins lay in a “sex symbol” associated with a West African male coming-of-age ritual. The Maroons informed her that although Three-leg Horse was harmless women were afraid of it (Ibid, p. 26).


Next time… Halloween will be lurking in the wings so there’s a return to plant lore with Dead Man Bones



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) cited in Beckwith, Black Roadways (1929).

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).

 Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with anew foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938).

Walter Jekyll (collected by and ed.), Jamaica Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Dancing Tunes and Ring Tunes (reprint, with new introductory essays by Philip Sherlock, Louise Bennett, and Rex Nettleford, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966, of 1907 edn, London: David Nutt).

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

Image credits: horse shoes by H.R. Sparkes


This month’s post was prompted by an example of folklore collected by the Victorian novelist, Alice Spinner who lived in Jamaica in the late 19th century. In A Reluctant Evangelist and Other Stories (1896), Spinner noted the belief that “Duppies borrow horses overnight” (Spinner, p. 317). Intrigued (and being something of a Horse fan!), here is some early twentieth-century African-Jamaican spirit lore concerning matters equine.

In Black Roadways (1929), American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith was told by Wilfred Bonito, one of the interviewees for her Jamaican fieldwork, that if a Horse galloped about a field and refused to be caught, it meant that it was being ridden by a duppy (Beckwith, p. 119). To catch such a Horse, you should stick a penknife in a piece of mud that has been flung form the Horse’s hoof. You will then be able to catch the animal. However, once the Horse has been caught, the penknife must be removed from the mud otherwise the Horse will die.


George Parkes, another of Beckwith’s African-Jamaican interviewees and who she described as “an expert in ghosts”, told her that he had often seen duppies riding Horses “in the mango walks with their faces turned to the Horse’s tail” (Ibid., p. 89).

Unfortunately, neither Spinner nor Beckwith give any reason as to why duppies chose to ride Horses.

However, in British folklore, Horses were believed to be sensitive to all things supernatural. Furthermore, they were vulnerable to being stolen by witches at night who used them to ride to their sabbats. At dawn, the Horses would be returned to the stables in an exhausted state (Alexander p. 140).

In another link between Horses and the African-Jamaican spirit world, one of the most fearsome duppies, the Rollin’ Calf, had a Horse’s hoof for a front foot. At times the Calf was reputed to appear in the shape of a Horse rather than in bovine form (Beckwith, p. 100).

Horses in Obeah

Horses, or at least parts of them played a part in early twentieth-century Obeah practice. For example, Horse hair and teeth along with “gravedirt, garlic, asafoetida, blueing mixed with water” and a duppy would be placed in bottles by Obeah practitioners and then used to ‘put’ Obeah on someone (Ibid., p. 136).

Horse hair was also utilised as a form of poison. Hair from a Horse’s tail would be chopped and administered to a victim. Similarly the gleanings from a curry comb after a Horse had been groomed could be put in someone’s food to cause illness and possibly death (Hurston, p. 240).


Next time… the Horse theme continues so hide in the shadows or climb up into the safety of the branches of a tree as Three-foot Horse will be abroad.


Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002).

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).

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with anew foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938).

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

 Image credits: Horse illustration (1817-1818) by Henry Alken, via rawpixel, CC BY 2.0 <;, Wikimedia Commons.


In this month’s post I will be looking at why Mice may have come to be associated in early 20th century African-Jamaican folk beliefs with spirits of dead people . During her Jamaican fieldwork in the 1920s, American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith was told by her interviewees that the Mice that scurried up and down the cotton trees growing in graveyards were considered to be duppies of the deceased (Beckwith, p. 145). It is unclear from Beckwith’s writings however, if this was an island-wide belief or limited to a certain cemetery in the town of Lacovia (Ibid., p. 118).

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Mice may have been considered to be duppies because they lived around a cotton tree (Ceiba). Cotton trees have a reputation in both Jamaican and African spirit lore for being the habitat of spirits. On a more mundane level, someone visiting the graveyard and seeing a small, scuttling creature like a Mouse out of the corner of their eye, may have been unnerved and assumed it was something of supernatural origin. As Mice in a number of cultures are considered to be vermin or unclean, this negative view may also have contributed to their association with duppies.

Mice in English witch beliefs

African-Jamaican spirit lore contains a variety of other cultural influences including elements from British witchcraft and magic. In England, Mice were one of the animals, along with cats, dogs, rabbits, chickens, and some insects, which were believed to be witches’ familiars or familiar spirits. Familiars were a type of supernatural creature which aided witches in their craft. English cunning folk, who practised magic, divination and healing, also had animal familiars. Whether the familiar took the form of Mouse, cat or beetle, it would manifest in the witch’s or cunning person’s life by either just appearing or by being given to them, usually from another witch or healer.

Familiars were sometimes described as “imps” which are supernatural beings or small demons. In his examination of East Anglian witchcraft records, historian Owen Davies found that in the late 19th and 20th centuries, imps were described as appearing in the form of Mice, often white in colour (Davies, p. 182).

Could there be a link between the Jamaican folk belief that graveyard Mice were duppies and the idea that Mice were familiars or imps found in English witchcraft?

Next time… Nature and Supernatural Nature takes an equestrian turn with a look at horses in African-Jamaican spirit lore


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).

Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951 (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1999).

Image credits: climbing mouse by H.R. Sparkes