Duppies, shadows and souls

As these terms will be used on occasions throughout my blog, I thought a brief description of each may be useful. The idea that a person possesses more than one soul or spirit is common in a number of African-Jamaican folk religions. These spirits are:

The Soul

After death, the soul ascends to heaven or descends to hell. However, it is believed to remain on this earthly plane for some days after death. In the early twentieth century, Walter Jekyll, an Englishman who lived in Jamaica and made a collection of African-Jamaican folk stories, was told by his informants that people had two spirits. One of these spirits was:

“from God and the other not from God. The one from God is good, and the one not from God may be either good or bad. At death the God-given spirit flies up upon a tree, and goes to heaven on the third day. The other spirit remains on earth as Duppy. Its abiding place is the grave of the dead man, but it wanders about at night.”

The Shadow

Whilst the soul and the duppy exist after death, the shadow belongs to the living. It can be trapped and manipulated by those who wish to harm its owner. Barry Chevannes described the shadow as an extension of a person’s self or personality. If the shadow is separated from the self it may lead to madness.

Some writers on Caribbean religions class the shadow and the duppy as one and the same. Mervyn Alleyne and Arvilla Payne-Jackson note that in modern Jamaica, “shadow” has largely fallen out of use. Prior to this, soul/shadow/duppy were at times used interchangeably by commentators on African-Jamaican folk religions. For example, in Jekyll’s Jamaica Song and Story (1907) both the duppy and the soul are referred to as “shadows”: “During sleep, these spirits [the duppy and the soul] leave the body and go to other people’s houses in search of food. Being shadows themselves, they feed on the shadow of food and on the smell of food….”

The Duppy

Appearance – As well as maintaining an interest in earthly matters such as eating, many duppies looked exactly as they had done in life with the exception that they floated about a couple of feet above the ground. Alternately, they appeared clothed in the white garments that were commonly used to dress a corpse (Beckwith mentions white flannel suits for men and white muslin dresses for women), with their heads bound up in cloth.

Who are duppies? – As the duppy made up part of a person’s essence, anyone had the potential to become a duppy but this process seems to have been automatic in the case of babies who died before baptism. Duppies can also appear in animal form. Those recorded by Beckwith included duck ants, cats, dogs, goats, pigs, cows and horses. Alleyne and Payne-Jackson note that the gender of duppies can be identified by their smell. Female duppies smell of bananas and male duppies of jack fruit or rum.

Duppy behaviour – Although some duppies could be malevolent, not all duppy behaviour was negative. Jekyll noted how “[a] good Duppy will watch over and protect the living”. However, “good duppies” are a rarity in descriptions of their behaviour during the time that Beckwith was researching. Many of the instances of duppies and the customs surrounding them recorded by Beckwith and other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the early twentieth century are concerned with ways to deal with “bad” duppies. For example, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist Joseph John Williams, collected a number of accounts of poltergeist or other ghostly activity which was attributed to duppies. These included the disembodied arms which were witnessed striking a dying woman by a priest who had arrived to administer her the last rites. A school near a mission station in the Dry Harbour Mountains was bombarded with stones thrown by unseen hands and doors opened and shut of their own accord at another mission house in All Saints.

There are a number of explanations as to why many duppies behave badly. Zora Neale Hurston attributed duppies’ sinister or mischievous behaviour to the idea that when the duppy leaves the body at the time of death, the heart and brain of the deceased are no longer able to restrain its actions and it will occupy itself with malevolence. Another reason was that the duppy was unhappy about the way their funeral and other death rituals had performed. Unresolved grudges or the deceased being owed money which had not been paid were also common explanations for hauntings or other duppy-derived misfortune. Other malevolent duppies were those who had been evil or unpleasant people in their earthly lives or had been captured and manipulated by Obeah practitioners to cause harm.

George Eaton Simpson, writing in the 1950s, noted how Obeah men and women weren’t the only ones who may wish to utilise the services of a duppy. Simpson was told by his informants that if a duppy had been “dismissed” properly at its funeral or Nine Night it would not return. However, sometimes the duppy’s living relatives would not dismiss the spirit as “they may want to recall it for special assignments later on.”


Next time…  We’re heading back to the plant world with a look at Pidgeon Peas – one of the plants that can help prevent a duppy rising from his or her grave in the first place.



Walter Jekyll (collected by and ed.), Jamaica Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Dancing Tunes and Ring Tunes (reprint, with new introductory essays by Philip Sherlock, Louise Bennett, and Rex Nettleford, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966, of 1907 edn, London: David Nutt), pp. 175-176, 147.

Barry Chevannes, Rastafari, Roots and Ideology (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 27.

Arvilla Payne-Jackson and Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), pp. 71-72, 136.

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. 70, 89, 90, 58, 123, 100.

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), pp. 43-44.

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), pp. 17, 9, 7.

George Eaton Simpson Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti (3rd edn, enlarged, Rio Piedras: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, 1980), p. 166.