In this month’s post I’m looking at one of the smallest creatures associated with the African-Jamaican spirit world of the early 20th century – the Duck Ant. Duck Ants are a type of termite/Nasutitermes which feed mainly on wood and can cause a large amount of damage to a building if they take up residence there. They usually make their nests in trees but they can also infest houses causing a large amount of damage. During her Jamaican fieldwork Martha Warren Beckwith described the persistence of a Duck Ant colony once they had infested a house. She noted the termites had made a trail in a straight line beginning in the rafters then across the ceiling and down a wall. If the trail was removed they began it again (Beckwith, p. 123).
Frederic Cassidy in the Dictionary of Jamaican English described the Duck Ant as being white and rather short; its name arising from its duck-like walk (Cassidy, p. 162). Cassidy gave their Latin name as being N. pilifrons but I have been unable to corroborate this (Ibid., p. 162).
In late post-emancipation Jamaica, Duck Ants were regarded as creatures of ill omen. For example, Beckwith commented that “Duck ants are feared as duppies” (Beckwith, p. 123). In an early twentieth century collection of African-Jamaican folklore, Frank Cundall included the information that the presence of Duck Ants in a house was a sign of an impending death (Cundall, p. 93). As at the time, many of houses of the working classes and peasantry contained a large amount of wood and other organic materials like bamboo, did the Ants’ destructive nature influence their association with death and the spirits of the dead ?
The use of Duck Ants in folk medicine
Despite their destructive habits and their bad reputation in spirit lore, Duck Ants, or at least their nests, were employed in a healing and protective capacity. A Duck Ants’ nest would be burned, along with other ingredients including cow’s hooves, horns and sulphur, to help rid a house of bothersome duppies (Ibid., p. 90).
Michele Johnson and Brian Moore cite a tragic example of a nest being used to cure yaws in the late 19th century. Yaws is an infectious disease which causes growths all over the body with the feet being particularly vulnerable. In this case a Duck Ants’ nest and horse dung were placed in a hole and set alight. The patient then lowered her feet into the burning hole. As may be imagined the results were not good and the woman had to have both feet amputated.
The connection between Duck Ants and human feet also appears in a piece of African-Jamaican agriculture lore noted by Beckwith to prevent crop theft. If a Duck Ants’ nest containing a piece of silver was placed in a field accompanied by the phrase “I pay you to do your work,” being spoken, it was believed that the thief’s foot would swell up in resemblance of the shape of a Duck Ants’ nest (Beckwith, p.130).
Both this crime prevention technique and the treatment for yaws suggest the underlying idea found in both in folk medicine and sympathetic magic that the name or shape of an animal or plant relates to the part of the human body it is being used to affect to affect. The Duck Ant is linked to lore which affects human feet because of their link to actual ducks; the ants’ gait being reminiscent of a duck’s walk. Water fowl have distinctive feet hence the association.
Next time…. I venture into the life aquatic with a look at the link between River Mummas and water lilies
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).
F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2002).
Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), pp. 87-94.
Image credits: “Identifying termites” by H.R. Sparkes