Cotton trees (ceiba)


In last month’s post I looked at how bamboo was used as the haunt of duppies and this month I continue the theme of duppy habitats with Martha Warren Beckwith’s take on the mighty Cotton tree (sometimes called the silk-cotton or cottonwood tree; Latin = ceiba).


Beckwith wrote that:

In Jamaica the cotton tree ‘may attain 150 feet in height, the trunk sometimes rising 80 feet without branching. Curious branch-like roots support its base.’

Duppies, a type of spirit, live in the ‘great chambers’ created by these cotton tree roots, emerging between ‘seven in the evening to five in the morning and at twelve o’clock at midday…’

African-Jamaicans feared ‘any cottonwood and will not cut it without a propitiatory offering of rum… The cult of the dead is strongly imposed upon the worship of the cottonwood, and the animistic idea of a tree spirit is less defined than that of a ghost of the dead harbouring in its branches. Cotton trees in graveyards are particularly feared, and mice or lizards that live in their branches are regarded as duppies of the dead.’

Other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the late post-emancipation era (1880- 1938) commented on the link between duppies and cotton trees. At the end of the nineteenth century, Alice Spinner wrote that cotton trees were left alone as they were believed to be ‘chosen haunt of duppies’. Fallen branches were not used as fuel because of the fear there may be duppies in them.

Links between cotton trees and duppies continued into the twentieth century. In the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was told that cotton trees should not be planted too near a house for fear that duppies would inhabit the trees and ‘’”throw heat” on the people as they come and go about the house’.


Origins of these beliefs

What prompted the link between cotton trees and duppies? Beckwith, keen to take a scientific approach to folklore, looked for a rational explanation, wondering if ‘the fact that the yellow snake in Jamaica… sleeps in hollows of fig and cotton trees is perhaps one reason for the fear of … the duppy-haunted precincts of the cotton tree.’

Alice Spinner and some other researchers of Jamaican folklore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, associated the beliefs with trace memories of trees as a source of religious worship. She wrote: ‘Strictly speaking, however, I imagine that these cotton-tree spirits, although confounded with “duppies”, belong to the order of ancient tree-deities,… It is evidently one of the old imported African beliefs, and one that, since it has saved so many noble trees, we may be grateful for.’

Also in the nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury likened African-Jamaican lore concerning cotton trees to the Druidic worship of the oak tree in Britain. ‘It is still held in veneration by the blacks, and some fears still entertained of it. So great was the veneration and dread entertained of the cotton tree, that it was a difficult matter to get one cut down, the negroes believing that if they did so, the “deaths” which took up their abode at its roots would injure them. The cotton trees were believed to have the power of transporting themselves at nights, and holding conference at a rendezvous with one another.’

Moving into the twentieth century, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist, Joseph John Williams pondered if duppies actually derived their name from the Ashanti word for particularly large tree roots.

He also wondered if African-Jamaican attitudes towards the cotton tree as home of duppies related to the belief in some parts of West Africa that Sasabonsam, a large human-like, ogre-ish creature covered in long red hair, was believed to live in cotton trees.

Next time…

More on African connections



Martha Warren Beckwith, Jamaica Proverbs (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New York: Publications of the Folk-lore Foundation, 1925), p. 27.

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), pp. 89, 122, 145.

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), p. 19.

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. 25.

Alice Spinner, A Reluctant Evangelist and Other Stories (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1896), pp. 317, 324.

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), pp. 61, 156.