Introduction: Martha Warren Beckwith and Jamaican plant lore

The focus of this blog is the Jamaican plant lore, especially that which was associated with the spirit world, recorded by the American anthropologist and folklorist Martha Warren Beckwith in the 1920s. The idea arose out of my PhD thesis, “Shadow Worlds and “Superstitions”: An Analysis of Martha Warren Beckwith’s writings on Jamaican Folk Religion, 1919-1929”. I have a fascination with the folklore surrounding plants and during my research into Beckwith and her contemporaries’ writings on Jamaican folk religions I became aware of not only how flora was utilised in Jamaican folk medicine but also that some plants had strong associations with the spirit realm and religious practises.

Some background… In 1919, Martha Beckwith visited Jamaica for the first time, making 3 subsequent visits. Her aim was to investigate the folk life of the African-Jamaican peasantry. As part of her fieldwork, Beckwith made a list of plants used for healing and protection. “Healing” here encompasses not only curing physiological illnesses but also methods of preventing duppies or other malevolent spirits causing physical or psychological harm. Beckwith’s list of Jamaican plants formed part of an article, “Notes on Jamaica Ethnobotany” (1927) but other plant lore can be found in Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929), the book which was the culmination of Beckwith’s Jamaican research.

Coming up in future posts… a useful tip for those nervous about unexpected “visitors” on Halloween (and I don’t mean Trick or Treaters), how to ensure that the dead and buried stay dead and buried, and just who is living in that clump of bamboo?

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