Rice (Oryza)

This month I’m looking at the links between Rice (Oryza) and the African-Jamaican spirit world. While researching plant lore in the 1920s, the American anthropologist, Martha Warren Beckwith learned from her informants in Jamaica how rice was utilised to keep duppies at bay.

For example, George Parkes, one of Beckwith’s main African-Jamaican interviewees, told Beckwith how, when travelling out alone at night, he “would fill a pocket with rice before starting out, and if a duppy followed him he would throw it behind his back.” (Beckwith, p. 92)

Parkes didn’t say why he threw the rice but I’m guessing it is to do with a belief that duppies would stop to count the grains. This could take a very long time as they were unable to count beyond a certain number. A similar method was used to prevented unwanted spirits from entering houses. Rice, grain or pebbles would be scattered in front of the entrance for the duppy to count.

Sources vary on the exact number which thwarted duppies’ numerical ability – Beckwith was told three, American folklorist, MacEdward Leach has the figure as nine (Beckwith, p. 93; Leach, p. 75). Three and nine are interesting as they both have (or had) numerological significance in a number of cultures (for example the Trinity in Christianity and the Ennead or nine principle Gods of in Ancient Egyptian religion).

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The use of Rice in death rituals

As well as keeping ghosts away, another connection between Rice and the African-Jamaican spirit world in the early 20th century was its use as part of the meal for those attending a Nine Night celebration. This event, held nine nights after a death, bids farewell to the dead person’s spirit.

Not only was Rice part of the feast for the living, it was also a key component in the repast provided for the duppy of the departed. For instance, in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938) Zora Neale Hurston  mentioned that unsalted white rice, along with white poultry meat and white rum were left out on banana leaf ‘plates’ as a feast for the duppy. (Hurston, p. 48). Madeleine Kerr, a social psychologist to the West Indian Social Survey in the 1940s, found Rice used in the same way at Kuminas, rituals she described as memorial feasts“ for “important” people of African heritage (Kerr, p. 144).

These are all examples of Rice being used in a benign manner – as protection and as part of Nine Night feasting. In a later post I’ll be looking at some of Rice’s more sinister connections with African-Jamaican spiritual beliefs.


Next time… As Christmas looms into view, God Bush aka Jamaican Mistletoe, will be the plant of the month, and then back to some more Rice lore for the New Year.




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).

MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81.

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).

Madeline Kerr, Personality and Conflict in Jamaica (London and Jamaica: Collins; Sangster’s Book Stores, 1963).

Image credits: 3 Rice photo by H.R. Sparkes.