As it’s only a month away from Hallowe’en, I thought that something pumpkin-related would be appropriate for this month’s entry. So here’s Martha Beckwith’s notes on the Duppy Pumpkin:
Beckwith provides two instances of the duppy pumpkin’s association with the spirit world and magical beliefs. Firstly, in Black Roadways, she noted that duppies were believed to feed upon its “gourd-like fruit”.
In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, the duppy pumpkin is listed as a cure for a stiff neck. The cure it seems is more in the realm of sympathetic magic, of like attracting like, than of a traditional herbal remedy (i.e. the plant being used in a bath or poultice or being consumed).
The person with the stiff neck was instructed to the wind the pumpkin vine around his or her neck. If anyone asked why the vine was wrapped around their neck, the sufferer should break off one of the pumpkin’s pods and throw them at the questioner who would then develop a stiff neck themselves. Beckwith presumed that this method transferred the neck problem from the first sufferer to the other person.
Slightly different duppie pumpkin beliefs were noted by the American folklorist, MacEdward Leach in “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”. He mentions that duppies also liked to play with duppie pumpkins and that planting them brought the grower good luck. He doesn’t mention which of plants he is referring to. In Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English any plant pumpkin-related in appearance was given the name “duppy pumpkin”.
However, Beckwith is fairly specific about the type of plant that she referred to. Her duppy pumpkin is a type of Cayaponia, a member of the Curcubitaceae family which includes gourds, pumpkins, cumbers, and squashes. Beckwith doesn’t expand on the full Latin name and there are a number of different varieties of Cayaponia in the Caribbean.
The Common Names database of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/ has a number of plants which have the common name of “duppy pumpkin” . However, the only one which is a Cayaponia is Cayaponia racemose so could this be Beckwith’s duppy pumpkin?
Next time – as we approach St Thomas’s Eve, 20th December, a time when the veil between this world and the spirit world thins, something which may keep unwanted ethereal visitors at bay…
Sources: 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. 89.
Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 16.
F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002).
MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81.