Cats in Obeah

In this month’s post I’m looking at the role Cats (Felis Catus) played in Jamaican Obeah practice. An early reference to the idea that Cats (or parts of Cats) possessed certain powers appears in a comment by the 18th century English planter and historian Edward Long. He noted how enslaved Africans would wear wild Cats’ teeth* and eat their flesh as they thought such practices would facilitate a long life. Long attributed this to the old belief that a Cat has nine lives (Long, p. 420).

*Long doesn’t specify what species the wild Cats he is referring to and, as yet, I haven’t been able to find out.

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One of the most terrifying duppies, the Rollin’ Calf  at times appears as a Cat. The Calf was also believed to manifest as a dog, pig, goat, horse or bull but it was considered to be at its most dangerous in the form of a tabby Cat (Banbury, cited in Beckwith, p. 100). African-Jamaican folklore collector Thomas Banbury, noted that Cats and snakes were the animals most commonly “set” by an Obeah practitioner to cause illness or misfortune (Banbury, p.15).

Setting Obeah could involve the placing of a foreign body under a person’s skin. Such Items included:

“pieces of glass bottles, nails, pins, needles, the teeth of Cats, serpents, bits of bones, shells, small vials, lizards, spiders and other small insects.” (Ibid., p. 14. My italics).

In Obeah charms

As well as being used to set Obeah, parts of a dead Cat appear in a number of Obeah charms. For instance, Cats’ teeth were used to deter theft. To this effect they, along with feathers, pieces of red fabric, egg shells and fish bones were placed over the doors of houses. (Long, p. 420).

The teeth of Cats are present in charms used for more sinister purposes. Another planter, Bryan Edwards, wrote of an elderly African woman, believed to be an Obeah practitioner, who in the 1770s was found to be keeping a number of clay balls in pot. The clay balls were of various sizes with some being wrapped in twine or having hair, glass beads, feathers and rags stuck to them. Others had Cats’ teeth, claws or “the upper sections of Cats’ skulls” embedded. (Beckwith, p. 110).

This mention of the upper part of a Cat’s skull being utilised struck a chord with me as it resonates with a Hoodoo charm from the southern states of America collected by Zora Neale Hurston which was used to grant wishes. To make the charm, skin from the forehead of a black Cat must be wrapped once in silk thread, then wrapped again with a dollar bill, placed in a silk bag and occasionally anointed with fine perfume. The charm should be carried in a wallet or purse (Hurston, p. 392).

***

By the 1920s, the links between Cats and Obeah practice seems to have faded. Researching African-Jamaican folk cultures in the 1920s, the American anthropologist, Martha Warren Beckwith found that while in the past Cats had been associated with Obeah, “today puss has fewer enemies” (Beckwith, p. 110). She was also told by Mrs Peart, one of her African-Jamaican interviewees, that “’a black Cat is the greatest luck in the house’” (Ibid., p. 119).

Next time… It’s back to duppy lore with tales of Whooping Boy.

Sources

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).

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).

Zora Neale Hurston, “Hoodoo in America”, The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 44, no. 174 (Oct-Dec, 1931).

Edward Long, The History of Jamaica or General Survey of Ancient and Modern State of that Island: With Reflections on its Situations, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws and Government (reprint, with a new introduction by George Metcalf, London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd, 1970, of orig. edn, London: T. Lowndes, 1774, 3 vols, vol II).

Image credits: Obeah Cat by H.R. Sparkes. Model – Millie

 

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