Gourds have a number of connections with African-Jamaican spiritual practices: as musical instruments, as a form of oracle and as receptacles for charms. In Black Roadways (1929), Martha Warren Beckwith wrote of how the Myal men in the Cockpits area of Jamaica used rattles, called “shakeys” alongside bon, panay and gombay drums to accompany the Myal dance to summon the spirits of the dead. She described a shakey as consisting of “a gourd fastened to the end of a stick and filled with the shot-like seed of the wild canna or with small stones. Such a rattle is often reported from Africa as an accompaniment of war or medicine dances”.
Writing on Jonkonnu festivities, Beckwith mentioned about the gourd rattle being used in the parade, along with other musical instruments such as the “African Gombay drum”, all of which had associations with the invocation of spirits.
Beckwith also cited the 17th century naturalist, Hans Sloane, who had observed how such rattles were:
”used as fetishes by the Indians of the Mosquito coast… The Indians adorned them with feathers and “planted” them among their houses. Such an object was called a maraca. After feeding for thirteen of fourteen days it would cause the roots to grow and would ‘answer’ questions”.
In addition to being employed as percussion instruments and oracles, gourds were also used as receptacles for Obeah practitioners’ charms. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury detailed the items such charms could contain. These included “pieces of broken bottles, cats’ or serpents’ teeth, nails, and bones, pins, needles, vials, pieces of cloth, &c”. The Obeah person would then recite an incantation over the charm. It was now ready to be buried in the yard or path of the intended victim. If the person stepped on it, the charm was believed to transfer its power to their body.
The Obeah powers of Wangla are under the spotlight
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. 148, pp. 212-213.
Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 12.
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. 6, 7.
Image credits: picture by Tmwatha – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFashion_Calabash.jpg
N.B. Unfortunately Beckwith doesn’t give the Latin name of the type of gourd which she is referring to. This makes finding an image of a specific plant difficult as there are a large number of species of gourd. Therefore I’ve used an image of some African gourd rattles which I think may have been made on similar lines to the Jamaican ones.