Shamantin

In a previous entry, I looked at the lore surrounding the nature spirit, Sasabonsam, who lives in deep in the forests of West Africa. Sasabonsam has a wife, Shamantin who is the subject of this month’s post. Unlike her husband, Shamantin doesn’t kill those who travel through the forest. Instead, she uses her long legs to catch people who wander beneath her cotton tree abode. She teaches the captured travellers forest lore: where the water sources are, which herbs are edible, which have medicinal properties (Bane, p. 301; Kingsley, p. 512).

In appearance Shamantin differs very much from Sasabonsam. Whereas he is described as a large, humanoid creature covered in hair, with bloodshot eyes, long legs and feet which point both ways, descriptions of Shamantin say little beyond that she is being extremely tall and completely white (Williams, (1934), p. 61), (Rattray in Williams, (1932), p. 130; (Bane, p. 301).

Shamantin_1 001

The idea that Shamantin, a benevolent spirit, is white, corresponds with the association in parts of Africa of the colour with peace, purity, good luck and the spirit world. For example, the Yoruba pantheon contains over fifty white divinities. Obatala, one of the principal gods is depicted as white; his names include “King of the white cloth” (Booth, p. 163). White has another connection to the African spirit world as in some cultures, for example in Kongolese cosmology, it is associated with the underworld (Kaufmann, p. 172).

A pale skin tone also appears in some traditional African art and rites of passage rituals involving women. For instance, as Jill Salmons has pointed out, some Nigerian carvings of women or female spirit beings are painted in “very pale colors” and light pigments are applied to the skin of female initiates in a number of cults (Salmons, p. 14).

 

Next time… it’s back to the animal kingdom when I look at the role cats played in Jamaican Obeah practice.

 

Sources

Teresa Bane, Encyclopaedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology (North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013).

Newell S. Booth, Jr, “God and the Gods in West Africa”, in Newell S. Booth, Jr, (ed.), African Religions (New York, London, Lagos: NOK Publishers International, 1977), pp. 159-182.

Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (reprint, One World Publications, 2019, of orig. edn, One World Publications, 2017).

Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 2003, of orig. edn, London & New York: Macmillan, 1897).

Jill Salmons, “Mammy Wata”, African Arts, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Apr., 1977), pp. 8-15+87.

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).

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934).

Image credits: Shamantin by H.R. Sparkes

The Stretching Trees of Polynesia

In a previous post I examined Polynesian trees of the dead. This month I’ll be looking at another aspect of Polynesian tree lore; the concept of ‘stretching trees’ – trees which stretch to provide a pathway between the earth and the skies or between this world and the world of spirits.

The American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith cited a number of South Sea islands which have such beliefs. For example, in a Samoan story, a boy climbed up a tree to reach the moon and in a tale from Tonga, a child visits his father in the sky via a stretching tree. In Mangaia, the god Tane climbs a tree to the sky, “from which he shakes down nuts upon his own homeland” (Beckwith, (a), p. 486). Kupuas, supernatural beings or demigods, could take the form of trees. Myths from Hawaii, the Marquesa islands, Rarotonga and the Tuamotus mention a kupua tree called Niu-ola-hiki or Niu-loa-hiki which acted as a pathway between earth and the land of the gods or between children and their ancestors (Ibid., p. 484).

In Rarotongan, Marquesean, and Tuamotuan myth, a stretching tree provides the route for “a divine child” to travel from earth to heaven or to faraway lands (Beckwith, (b), p. 27).

Betel_Nut_Tree

Types of tree

The species of tree which stretches skywards is mentioned in some Polynesian myths and stories. In San Cristobal, Areca (Areca catechu) trees appear as stretching trees (Beckwith, (a), p. 484). In the Hawaiian story of the demigod Maui, Maui’s uncle transforms himself into a coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) which reaches to the heavens so that Maui can visit Makali’i, his father, who resides there (Ibid., p. 478). In tales from the Banks Islands and Tonga, Casuarina trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) stretch to save the god Qat and his brothers from Qasavara, a giant intent on eating them.

 

Next time… it’s back to West Africa to meet a spirit who teaches the lore of the forest.

Sources

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).

Martha Beckwith, “POLYNESIAN MYTHOLOGY”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 49, no. 1 (193), (1940), pp. 19–35. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20702789. <accessed 6 Jun. 2022>

 Image credits: Betel nut tree by Ridip, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eggs pt 2: In Myal

Previously I looked at the use of bird’s eggs in Jamaican Obeah . This month’s post focuses on how they were used in the Myal faith to counteract one of Obeah’s more sinister practices.

There was a belief that an Obeah practitioner could cause illness or death by stealing a person’s shadow – an entity akin to a spirit but belonging to the living. The shadow would then be nailed it to a cotton tree where it would remain trapped.

In the 19th century, Thomas Banbury, African-Jamaican clergyman and folklore collector, commented that:

It is believed that after the shadow of anyone is taken he is never healthy; and if it be not caught, he must pine away until he dies. (Banbury, p. 23).

To counteract this, Myalists would parade to a cotton tree and walk around it, singing and dancing in order to heal a sick person whose condition did not respond to other remedies. The tree would be pelted with eggs and dead fowl in an attempt to persuade the duppies which inhabited the tree to release the patient’s trapped shadow the eggs and poultry being an offering to the spirits. A white bowl filled with water would be held up to the tree to catch the shadow. Once caught, a lid would quickly be put on the bowl. The shadow would be restored to its ‘owner’ by dipping a cloth in the water and wrapping it about the patient’s head (Beckwith, pp. 144-45).

Cotton_Tree_on_Spanish_Town_Road,_Jamaica,_ca.1875-ca.1940_(imp-cswc-GB-237-CSWC47-LS11-017)

Banbury also gives an alternate account whereby the patient accompanied the Myalists to the tree to witness the ritual (Banbury, p. 23). He also noted that the singing and dancing would become more vigorous as the duppies’ grip on the shadow loosened and that the Myalists would be paid six dollars for such a cure (Ibid., p. 23).

Next time… I move away from Jamaica to look at some Hawaiian tress which connect to the spirit world

Sources

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).

Image credits:Cotton Tree on Spanish Town Road, Jamaica” by unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cotton_Tree_on_Spanish_Town_Road,_Jamaica,_ca.1875-ca.1940_(imp-cswc-GB-237-CSWC47-LS11-017).jpg> (13 May 2022).