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).

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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

 

Shamantin

In a previous entry, I looked at the lore surrounding the nature spirit, Sasabonsam, who lives in deep in the forests of West Africa. Sasabonsam has a wife, Shamantin who is the subject of this month’s post. Unlike her husband, Shamantin doesn’t kill those who travel through the forest. Instead, she uses her long legs to catch people who wander beneath her cotton tree abode. She teaches the captured travellers forest lore: where the water sources are, which herbs are edible, which have medicinal properties (Bane, p. 301; Kingsley, p. 512).

In appearance Shamantin differs very much from Sasabonsam. Whereas he is described as a large, humanoid creature covered in hair, with bloodshot eyes, long legs and feet which point both ways, descriptions of Shamantin say little beyond that she is being extremely tall and completely white (Williams, (1934), p. 61), (Rattray in Williams, (1932), p. 130; (Bane, p. 301).

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The idea that Shamantin, a benevolent spirit, is white, corresponds with the association in parts of Africa of the colour with peace, purity, good luck and the spirit world. For example, the Yoruba pantheon contains over fifty white divinities. Obatala, one of the principal gods is depicted as white; his names include “King of the white cloth” (Booth, p. 163). White has another connection to the African spirit world as in some cultures, for example in Kongolese cosmology, it is associated with the underworld (Kaufmann, p. 172).

A pale skin tone also appears in some traditional African art and rites of passage rituals involving women. For instance, as Jill Salmons has pointed out, some Nigerian carvings of women or female spirit beings are painted in “very pale colors” and light pigments are applied to the skin of female initiates in a number of cults (Salmons, p. 14).

 

Next time… it’s back to the animal kingdom when I look at the role cats played in Jamaican Obeah practice.

 

Sources

Teresa Bane, Encyclopaedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology (North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013).

Newell S. Booth, Jr, “God and the Gods in West Africa”, in Newell S. Booth, Jr, (ed.), African Religions (New York, London, Lagos: NOK Publishers International, 1977), pp. 159-182.

Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (reprint, One World Publications, 2019, of orig. edn, One World Publications, 2017).

Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 2003, of orig. edn, London & New York: Macmillan, 1897).

Jill Salmons, “Mammy Wata”, African Arts, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Apr., 1977), pp. 8-15+87.

Joseph John Williams, Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: L. MacVeagh, Dial Press, inc., 1932).

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

Image credits: Shamantin by H.R. Sparkes

The Stretching Trees of Polynesia

In a previous post I examined Polynesian trees of the dead. This month I’ll be looking at another aspect of Polynesian tree lore; the concept of ‘stretching trees’ – trees which stretch to provide a pathway between the earth and the skies or between this world and the world of spirits.

The American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith cited a number of South Sea islands which have such beliefs. For example, in a Samoan story, a boy climbed up a tree to reach the moon and in a tale from Tonga, a child visits his father in the sky via a stretching tree. In Mangaia, the god Tane climbs a tree to the sky, “from which he shakes down nuts upon his own homeland” (Beckwith, (a), p. 486). Kupuas, supernatural beings or demigods, could take the form of trees. Myths from Hawaii, the Marquesa islands, Rarotonga and the Tuamotus mention a kupua tree called Niu-ola-hiki or Niu-loa-hiki which acted as a pathway between earth and the land of the gods or between children and their ancestors (Ibid., p. 484).

In Rarotongan, Marquesean, and Tuamotuan myth, a stretching tree provides the route for “a divine child” to travel from earth to heaven or to faraway lands (Beckwith, (b), p. 27).

Betel_Nut_Tree

Types of tree

The species of tree which stretches skywards is mentioned in some Polynesian myths and stories. In San Cristobal, Areca (Areca catechu) trees appear as stretching trees (Beckwith, (a), p. 484). In the Hawaiian story of the demigod Maui, Maui’s uncle transforms himself into a coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) which reaches to the heavens so that Maui can visit Makali’i, his father, who resides there (Ibid., p. 478). In tales from the Banks Islands and Tonga, Casuarina trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) stretch to save the god Qat and his brothers from Qasavara, a giant intent on eating them.

 

Next time… it’s back to West Africa to meet a spirit who teaches the lore of the forest.

Sources

Martha Warren Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (reprint, with a new introduction by Katherine Luomala, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1940).

Martha Beckwith, “POLYNESIAN MYTHOLOGY”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 49, no. 1 (193), (1940), pp. 19–35. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20702789. <accessed 6 Jun. 2022>

 Image credits: Betel nut tree by Ridip, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons