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 ?


                      blog #68

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

Almond Trees (Terminalia catappa)

In this post I will be looking at a piece of sinister lore surrounding the Almond Tree (Terminalia catappa). This tree, also known as the Indian Almond, Tropical Almond and Sea Almond, introduced into Jamaica in the 1790s, is a tall, large-leafed tree with spreading branches providing lots of shade (“Some Common Trees of Jamaica”, p. 80).

I think Terminalia catappa is the type of almond tree to which Zora Neale Hurston referred to in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938). Hurston was told by the medicine man (unnamed by Hurston) of the Accompong Maroons, that Almond Trees were the abodes of duppies and therefore should never be planted near a house. If an Almond Tree was planted in close proximity to a dwelling, there was always a risk that the tree’s duppy inhabitants might “throw heat” on the occupants of the house. The result would be that the latter would become very hot and and/or their heads would swell to a large size. Drinking tea made from Spirit Weed could protect people from such duppy heat attacks (Hurston, p. 25).


Elsewhere in the Americas, John Rashford notes that in Brazil the Terminalia catappa is dedicated to Tempo, one of the inkice (a spirit akin to an orisha) from the pantheon of Angolan-influenced Candomblé (Rashford, p. 319). The African-Jamaican belief that the Almond Tree is a home for duppies and its dedication to a minor deity in Brazil fit in with African ideas of connections between trees and the spirit world. For example, in parts of West Africa the Cotton Tree (Ceiba) was regarded as the abode of entities including duppies and Sasabonsam, a large, human-like creature covered in long red hair.

Next time… I move from a possible duppy habitat to one of the many guises that duppies can take.


Eric Garraway (ed.), “Some Common Trees of Jamaica”, The Natural History Society of Jamaica: <accessed 15.03.21>

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).

John Rashford, “Candomblé’s Cosmic Tree and Brazil’s Ficus Species” in Voeks and Rashford, African Ethnobotany in the Americas, pp.311-334.

Robert Voeks and John Rashford (eds), African Ethnobotany in the Americas (New York: Springer, 2013).

Image credits: W.J. Hooker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons:

IWD 2021: Martha Warren Beckwith: the Hawaii connection

Nature and Supernatural Nature grew out of my PhD thesis, “Shadow Worlds and “Superstitions”: An Analysis of Martha Warren Beckwith’s Writings on Jamaican Folk Religion, 1919-1929”. Martha Warren Beckwith  (1871-1959) was an American anthropologist, folklorist and academic and although her research into he folk cultures of rural African-Jamaicans was pioneering, she who is perhaps best known for her work on Hawaii. For International Women’s Day 2021, I want look at her connection to the island.


Beckwith’s interest in Hawaiian folklore stemmed from her upbringing on the island of Maui where she had become fascinated by the islands’ folk culture and mythology. She had been born in 1871 in Massachusetts but her family moved to Hawaii a few years later and she grew up on Maui where her father was a teacher. The family had a prior connection to the island via Martha’s great aunt, Lucy Goodale Thurston, a Christian missionary to Hawaii (Luomala, p. 341).

Beckwith returned to the States for her higher education and lived there for the rest of her life but made frequent trips back to Hawaii. She wrote prolifically on Hawaiian folklore and mythology, using a nineteenth-century Hawaiian newspaper serial based on an older oral narrative as the subject for her anthropology thesis at Columbia (Bronner, p. 244). Her works in this field include “The Hawaiian Hula Dance” (1916), “Hawaiian Shark Aumakua” (1917), The Hawaiian Romance of Laieikawai (1919), “Hawaiian Riddling” (1922), Hawaiian Mythology (1940) and The Kumulipo, A Hawaiian Creation Chant (1951). After her retirement from teaching, she became Honorary Research Associate in Hawaiian Folklore at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu (Ibid., p. 342).

MWB 003

A comment Beckwith made when writing about her early upbringing on Maui, for me, sums up the powerful influence Hawaiian culture made upon her:

  “we were always aware of a life just out of reach of us latecomers but lived intensely by the kindly, generous race who chanced so many centuries ago upon its shores” (Beckwith, p. xxxi).

After Martha Beckwith’s death in 1959, her ashes were buried in Makawao cemetery on Maui, the resting place of her parents, brother, sister and the close friend who helped finance her research endeavours, Annie Alexander.

Next time… what (or maybe who) is lurking in that almond tree?


 Martha Warren Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (reprint, with a new introduction by

Katherine Luomala, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1940).

Simon J. Bronner, Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998).

Katharine Luomala, “Martha Warren Beckwith: A Commemorative Essay,” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 75, no. 298 (Oct.-Dec., 1962), pp. 341-353.

Image credits: 1) Haleakalā volcano on Maui, Viriditas at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Image credits:2) Hawaiian Mythology by H.R. Sparkes