Madame Fate (Isotoma longiflora AKA Hippobroma longiflora)

In this month’s post I’m going to be looking at the lore surrounding Madame Fate (Isotoma longiflora or Hippobroma longiflora) a member of the Campanulaceae family which grows wild in the West Indies. As well as possessing a couple of different Latin names, Madame Fate is also known as Star of Bethlehem and Star Flower. The majority of plants I feature in Nature and Supernatural Nature have connections with the spirit world. However, with Madame Fate I have to confess that I chose it mainly because I was intrigued by the name – the lore surrounding the plant fits more in to the category of magic than spirituality.

Wilfred, one of Martha Warren Beckwith’s  African-Jamaican interviewees, told the anthropologist that Madame Fate, used in conjunction with Apimpe-grass and Bahama Grass, can stop a person from working by making them lazy. To achieve this end, strips of the three plants must be tucked into the belt of the intended target. Alternatively, the pieces should be placed at the top and bottom of the victim’s plot of land.

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The folklore surrounding Madame Fate starts to get a tad more mysterious in a mention by one of Beckwith’s contemporaries,  Zora Neale Hurston. Whilst researching the Accompong Maroons, Hurston was informed by their spiritual leader that Madame Fate was a “cruel” plant. Hurston went on to comment that he had understated its powers Unfortunately Hurston did not elaborate why she considered it an understatement but as Hippobroma longiflora is very toxic this may have been what she was alluding to.

It’s not just the folklore concerning Madame Fate which is hard to come by. It appears that finding the plant itself can be difficult. An intriguing reference to Hippobroma longiflora appears in a 21st-century collection of Jamaican plant lore, Bush Doctor: Forgotten Folklore & Remedies from Jamaica & the Caribbean (2002). Its author, Sylvester Ayre, mentions that if you seek Madame Fate in silence you will find it, but if you call its name whilst searching, then the plant remains elusive.Hippobroma_longiflora_Belize_2018_2


Next time… I’m looking at how the far less elusive garlic can be used to both catch and disperse spirits.



Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica 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), p. 21.

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), p. 27.

Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 8.

Image credits: “Fate” photograph by H.R. Sparkes and Hippobroma longiflora photograph by Kaldari –





Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna)

Previously I examined the properties of Death-Weed (Solanum nigrum). In this post I’m going across the Atlantic to look at another member of the Solenaceae family of plants – the Deadly Nightshade. Deadly Nightshade, also known as banewort, death’s herb or Devil’s cherries, is native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia. In The Folklore of Plants Margaret Baker lists some of its uses. These include as an aid to achieving second sight, as a remedy for unbewitching, and as means of protecting livestock from the Evil Eye. Although extremely toxic, the plant was also employed for cosmetic purposes by dilating the pupils to enhance women’s eyes.

Perhaps Deadly Nightshade is most well-known as an ingredient in British witches’ “flying ointment”. In a thesis on Warwickshire folklore, C.S. Wharton describes how witches combine belladonna with other wild plants such as:

“vervain… and cinque-foil, aconite… and the juice of water hemlock”.

The concoction, mixed into an ointment, would then be smeared on their bodies before Sabbats, or ceremonies. As the witches’ bodies became heated through dancing, the ointment would give off fumes which caused hallucinations, including the sensation of flying.




Aside from its psychotropic effects, another reason why this particular type of nightshade has come to be associated with witches is through its links to the ancient Greek deity, Hecate. Not only was Hecate the goddess of the crossroads, but magic, witchcraft and the knowledge of the properties of plants were also part of her remit. In The History of Plant Lore, Donald Watts mentions an old belief that Deadly Nightshade was grown in Hecate’s garden. I had really hoped to find a gardening goddess. However, I think the garden is most likely the one in Greek mythology which was associated with the temple of Hecate on the island of Colchis and therefore tended by her priestesses.

Another connection with Greek mythology occurs in the Latin name of Deadly Nightshade – Atropa belladonna. For the ancient Greeks, Atropos was one of the three Fates. Whilst her sister Fates spun and gave out the “thread” of human life, it was Atropos whose role it was to dispense death by cutting the “thread”.

Whizzing through the centuries back to the present day, there’s a modern witch’s take on flying ointment on the Bane and Beauty blog. Bane and Beauty is an American blog but I think it gives an insight into the ointment’s usage and efficacy, as well as reinforcing warnings about the plant’s extreme toxicity.


Next time…. More plant lore as I encounter the mysterious Madame Fate.




Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), p. 108.

C.S. Wharton, “The Folklore of South Warwickshire” (self-published thesis or dissertation, 1974), p. 123.

D. Watts, Dictionary of Plant Lore (Amsterdam and London: Elsevier Academic Press 2007), p. 30.

Image credits: photo by Donald Macauley:


Myal in early 20th Century Jamaica

In an earlier post I examined the links between cotton trees and Myal rituals. Now I’m going to be looking a bit more at the Myal faith, focussing on some aspects of its form and practice in the early twentieth century, the time when Martha Warren Beckwith was doing her Jamaican fieldwork.

Myal’s Origins

Myal is one of a number of African-Jamaican folk religions which blend, to varying degrees, aspects of Christianity with elements derived from African religions and spiritual belief systems. Martha Beckwith thought that Myal was of “directly African” origins. However, a more modern viewpoint, such as that expressed by Monica Schuler in her essay, ”Myalism and the African Religious Tradition”, places its development in Jamaica instead. The first written record of Myal in Jamaica appears in the 1760s but it’s most likely it had been in existence for some time before that. Central to Myal was the idea that humans possessed two types of spirits, the shadow and the duppy.

A ritual dance was performed to call the spirits down to the Myal ceremony. As I mentioned in my previous post on Death-weed  an early account of the dance mentions initiates being put into a trance state. Having undergone this experience it was believed that the initiate would be protected from white men’s bullets.

As well as the propitiation of the spirit world, Myalists also located buried Obeah and restored spirits stolen by Obeah practitioners.


IMG_20190627_165736225.jpg Beckwith was told that an amber bead was used as a Myal talisman but that in Lacovia a glass marble was now used


Myal in early 20th century Jamaica

Through speaking with a Myalist leader and from information given to her from her African-Jamaican interviewees, Martha Beckwith gives us some idea about Myal beliefs and practices in early twentieth-century Jamaica. For example, one woman, a member of a Myalist group in Portland, told her that there was a distinction between two types of Myalist. The first type held communal ceremonies to summon the spirits. The second type worked in a solitary fashion by cotton trees.

Another Myalist told Beckwith that the spirits called up during the Myal dance manifested themselves at night and would be visible only to Myalists. A drum such as the gombay was used during the dance to draw the spirits into the proceedings.

One of Beckwith’s interviewees, the Lacovian Myal man James White, said that during the dance, the spirits, or ‘Deaths’, would present the Myalists with a talisman which would enable them to see where Obeah had been buried or shadows hidden (see picture). White also said that spirits would enable the “Myal-man” to perform “astonishing feats of climbing” such as clambering to the top of tall trees.

Despite Beckwith interviewing a number of Myalists during her fieldwork in the 1920s, there was some dispute amongst some early twentieth-century ethnographers and commentators on African-Jamaican religions about whether Myal was still practised. For example, in his book Twentieth Century Jamaica (1913), Herbert De Lisser argued that ‘Myal’ no longer existed as a term, having been replaced instead by the word ‘Revivalist’. However, others acknowledged that it was still in existence. In 1916, the ethnographer Abraham Emerick noted that even though Myal was not often referred to, Myalists were still following their faith. Although the American anthropologist, Joseph John Williams, believed that Myal had largely died out since the advent of Revival in the 1860s, he concurred with Emerick’s view that it was still present in Jamaica.

Nevertheless, by the late 1940s, a decade after Williams’ comment, Madelaine Kerr, a social psychologist to the West Indian Social Survey, found that in the rural areas where she gathered her data, ‘Myal’ was only ever used to describe a kind of spiritual trance.

Next time…. it’s across the Atlantic to look at the occult lore which surrounds Nightshade in Britain.


Sources (in order of first appearance in the text)

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), p. 142, 147, 148, p. 144.

Monica Schuler, “Myalism and the African Religious Tradition” in Margaret E. Crahan and Franklin W. Knight, (eds) Africa and the Caribbean: The Legacies of a Link (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 65-79, p. 66

Monica Schuler, Alas, Alas, Kongo”: A Social History of Indentured African Immigration into Jamaica, 1841–1865, p. 32

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica 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), p. 52.

Herbert G. De Lisser, Twentieth Century Jamaica (Kingston: The Jamaica Times Ltd., 1913), p. 134.

Abraham Emerick, “Jamaica Mialism”, The Woodstock Letters: A Record of Current Events and Historical Notes Connected with the Colleges and Missions of the Society of Jesus, vol. XLV, (1916), p. 42.

Joseph John Williams, Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: L. MacVeagh, Dial Press, inc., 1932), p. 215.

Madeline Kerr, Personality and Conflict in Jamaica (London and Jamaica: Collins; Sangster’s Book Stores, 1963), p. 213.

Image credits: photograph by H.R. Sparkes