Worm-weed (Chenopodium ambrosioides, L.)

In both Black Roadways and “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith noted that Worm-weed (AKA “See-me-contract”/ “Semi contrac”) was used to drive duppies away. This could be done by either rubbing the leaves on your body or scattering them about your house.

Beckwith also referred to the plant’s medicinal usage in the treatment for intestinal worms citing an eighteenth century physician, Patrick Browne:

“Browne uses ‘worm-weed’… to produce an effect like opium… After such a dose he gives an ordinary purge, after which the worms are discharged… Such experiences… may account for the belief in the removal of animals from a patient’s body into a bottle which forms so common a practice in obeah today”.

This idea of worm-weed as a vermifuge appears in modern Jamaican folk medicine. Its emetic and anti-inflammatory properties are also used in remedies for arthritis, constipation and worms.

Would the plant’s purgative qualities have influenced ideas that it could also dispel evil spirits?

Wormweed

Next time…

How to remove lizards if they become stuck in your arm.

 

Sources

Image – drawing of worm-weed © H. R. Sparkes

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. 26, 30.

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. 94.

Patrick Browne, The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica (London, 1789), p. 156 cited in Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, p. 30.

Arvilla Payne-Jackson, and Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), pp. 168, 150, 154.

 

 

Interlude: International Women’s Day/ Martha Warren Beckwith

Today, Nature and Supernatural Nature is taking some time out from its investigation into the spirit lore associated with Jamaican plants to celebrate International Women’s Day https://www.internationalwomensday.com/ and pay tribute to the woman who provided the inspiration for this blog, Martha Warren Beckwith

Martha Warren Beckwith (1879-1959) was an American anthropologist, folklorist and academic who is perhaps best known today for her work on Hawaii. However, her Jamaican research was pioneering as not only did she focus on the Caribbean when it was considered an unfashionable area for study by many anthropologists but she also took African-Jamaican folk religions seriously. She was writing at a time when Jamaican folk stories, song and dance were starting to be celebrated but the island’s folk religions and spiritual beliefs were still denigrated by many commentators.

Beckwith’s Jamaican fieldwork, which took place between 1919 and 1924, resulted in a number of articles and the books, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929), Jamaica Proverbs (1925), Jamaican Folklore (1928) and Jamaica Anansi Stories (1924). Her Caribbean research influenced Melville Herskovits, who himself went on to influence a generation of “American anthropologists who studied the Caribbean, including Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, and George Eaton Simpson” (Forde and Paton, p. 17)

Beckwith was not only ground-breaking in her approach to her Caribbean fieldwork. She also played an important role in the development of folklore studies in academia. In 1920 Beckwith became research Professor of the Folklore Foundation and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Vassar College, making her America’s first chair of folklore. In the early twentieth century, folklore studies at university level were based in either anthropology or literature departments. Beckwith disagreed with this, considering folklore to be a subject worthy of study in its own right and, under the auspices of Vassar’s Folklore Foundation, Beckwith was able to bring literature and anthropology together in the study of folklore as a distinct subject.

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So on this International Women’s Day I’m raising a glass to all those who work to make women’s lives better and also to the inspirational Martha Warren Beckwith

Next time…

Normal service will be resumed as I look at the duppy prevention and vermifugal qualities of Worm-weed.

Sources

Maarit Forde and Diana Paton, “Introduction” to Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2012).

Picture credit: by Davide Restivo at

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_glass_of_red_wine.jpg

 

Addendum: Broom-weed (Malvastrum coromandelianum)

Since my last post I’ve come across an example of broom-weed being used in theft detection charms by North American Conjure practitioners. In her essay “Hoodoo in America” (1931), the American novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston noted that:

“To catch a thief: hang three sprigs of broomweed about the neck of the suspect and recite Psalm 50:18, and if he is the guilty one it will choke him to death”.

Psalm 50, verse 18 concerns God condemning those who recite the commandments and talk of their faith whilst also being “the friend of every thief” they see.

hurston-zora-neale-loc

Hurston didn’t give the Latin names of the plants the Hoodoo and Conjure practitioners used. As there are a number of species called “broom-weed” I can’t be sure if it is the malvastrum coromanelianum of the Jamaican ritual. However, the employment of broom-weed in Hoodoo demonstrates that it was employed in anti-theft techniques in different parts of the New World.

Did the idea/technique travel from North America to the Caribbean or vice versa?

One obvious difference between the North American and the Jamaican versions of the broom-weed anti-theft charm are the words recited. As seen in my previous post, in Jamaica a rhyme invoking St Peter and Saint Paul is used. In the USA, a psalm.

Saint Paul is not mentioned at all in Hurston’s collection of Hoodoo remedies. However St Peter is included in a couple of the charms though these are aimed at increasing success and prosperity rather than the detection/prevention of theft (see “Hoodoo in America”, pp. 338 and 413).

Next time…

How wormweed can prevent unwanted attention from duppies.

 

Sources

Zora Neale Hurston, “Hoodoo in America”, The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 44, no. 174 (Oct-Dec, 1931), p. 324.

Good News Bible: Today’s English Version (London: Collins/Fontana, 1976), p. 565.

Image credits

From U.S. Library of Congress, author unknown: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOC.jpg

Broom-weed (Malvastrum coromandelianum)

This month’s plant is spiritual only in the sense that God and two saints are invoked in its usage. In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote of how broom-weed was used by rural Jamaicans to catch thieves.

Mrs Peart, the wife of one of her informants, told Beckwith that to find a thief, you must: “take two pieces of the plant [broom-weed], dip them in lye-water* reciting ‘By St. Peter, by St. Paul, By the living God of all’”. The pieces of broom-weed should be placed either side of the suspect’s neck. The plant will then wind itself around the neck of the guilty party and choke him or her.

A turn of the century collection of African-Jamaican folklore described this technique as “the broom-weed gallows”.
malvastrum_coromandelianum_1461771973

I’m guessing that the inclusion of Saints Peter and Paul in the recitation used alongside the broom-weed has British origins. In Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (2007), Owen Davies cites the example of a British nineteenth-century charm which included the names of the same two saints:
“By Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
God is the maker of us all;
What he gave to me I give to thee,
And that is nought to nobody.”

Giving “nought to nobody” implies that this rhyme was used to prevent theft. Peter and Paul’s names are to be found amongst a list of saints used in Anglo-Saxon charms to detect missing goods and livestock so maybe the 19th century charm is an abbreviated version of these much older ones?

I haven’t been able to found out why Peter and Paul were called upon for this purpose. Peter is believed to be the patron saint of locksmiths so that may be the reason. However Paul’s patronage is mainly for occupations involving writing so there doesn’t seem any obvious link there.

St Peter                                                                                      St Paul

256px-tondo_st_peter_mnma_cl23759                                        castell_coch_stained_glass_panel_1

* lye is a chemical used in soaps and detergents. Household cleaning products were sometimes used in Caribbean folk practices. For example, in his book on Obeah in nineteenth century Grenada, Sir Henry Hesketh Bell wrote of an Obeah man who had hung bottles containing laundry blue mixed with sea water off trees in to prevent petty larceny.from a garden.

Next time
We’re back to preventing unwanted attention from duppies.

 

Sources

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. 13.
Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), p. 92.
Example from The Times, 30 March, 1850 cited in Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p. 154.
Lea Olsen, The Inscription of Charms in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Oral Tradition, Vol. 14, no. 2 (1999), p. 409.
Henry Hesketh J. Bell, Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies (reprint, Westport: Negro Universities Press, 1970 of 1889 edn, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889), p. 4.

picture: broom-weed: Dinesh Valke https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3AMalvastrum_coromandelianum_(1461771973).jpg
picture: St Peter: Jastrow https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3ATondo_St_Peter_MNMA_Cl23759.jpg
picture: St Paul: Hchc2009 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3ACastell_Coch_stained_glass_panel_1.JPG

 

On the naming of Jamaican plants: no. 1

It’s a year since Nature and Supernatural Nature hit the internet so after a slice of birthday cake, a sip of rum and a blowing-out of candles, on to this month’s post. This entry focuses on Martha Warren Beckwith’s take on how Jamaican plants got their names

 Beckwith wrote: “Most of the local plant-names here collected are evidently English – some applied by the whites, like ‘Rosemary’, others are used to name a plant to which they bear a fancied resemblance, as in the case of ‘Dandelion’, or ‘Batchelor’s-button’… Color, or leaf-shape, or seed-pod suggest the analogy for ‘Milk-tea’, ‘Bat-wing’, ‘Rattleweed’.”

“Other names derive from the disease which they cure, such as ‘Fever-grass’, ‘Worm-weed’, ‘Snake-weed’, or ‘Consumption-weed’.”

She noted how plants with ‘duppy’ or ‘spirit’ in their name were used to ward of unwelcome entities (see duppy-pumpkin).

Some flora was named by what Beckwith described as a ”riddling form” known as “Cromanty talk”. These plants include See-me-contract and Dead-and-wake. Other plant names had more obvious links to Africa, for example, Guinea-weed. African names for children born on particular days of the week (see below) can been found in plants such as Juba-bush and Quaco-bush.

 

Beckwith’s list of African day names

Day                   male              female

Sunday            Quashe            Quasheba

Monday           Cudjo               Juba

Tuesday           Cubena            Benaba

Wednesday     Quaco              Cooba

Thursday         Quao               Abba

Friday              Cuffee             Fee-ba

Saturday         Quamin           Mimba

 

Next time….

I look at the criminal-catching properties of Broom-weed.


 

Sources

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), pp. 6-7

list of African days names in 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. 59

 

Bat-wing (Passiflora sexflora juss.)

128px-bat_shadow_black_svg           128px-bat_shadow_black_svg     128px-bat_shadow_black_svg

Bat-wing (aka passion flower, duck-foot, or goat-foot) is a vine with smallish ornate flowers.

Its spiritual connections are very tenuous as so far as I’m aware it doesn’t have any! Its place in Jamaican plant lore seems solely in its healing capacity. However, I’m featuring it in the blog for two reasons. Firstly, in “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith noted that bat-wing “is sometimes identified with ‘Duppy pumpkin’”. As I mentioned in a previous post, duppies were believed to feed on duppy pumpkin or play with its fruits.  Secondly, as it’s October, I wanted a plant with a Hallowe’en connection and despite several readings of Beckwith’s plant lists I haven’t found a Pharaoh’s Mummy vine or Aged Crone on Broomstick gourd….

passiflora_sexflora_the_goats_foot_passion_flower__11256878685

In its role as a healing plant Beckwith wrote that bat-wing was used to help cure colds or fever. Like duppy pumpkin it was believed help to alleviate a cricked neck. Bat-wing was also used to heal sores or “a lame foot” by squishing the plant to a pulp in a mortar and applying the resulting paste to the affected area.

 

Next time….

Martha Beckwith’s take on how Jamaican plants got their names.

 

128px-bat_shadow_black_svg

 


Sources

Bat image: By “Myself” (Image:Bat_shadow.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of passion flower: By Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, p. 11, in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928).

 

 

The calabash (Crescentia Cujete L.)

Here’s another plant associated with African-Jamaican burial customs as well as ghosts.

Martha Warren Beckwith was told by Wilfred, one of her informants that calabash trees were planted at the head and foot of a grave to mark it but he would ‘not admit that their presence had any significance’.

However, Beckwith heard that in Westmoreland graves were beaten three times with ‘calabash switches’ as part of a ritual to raise the ghost of the dead to do one’s bidding.

crescentia_cujete_3

Zora Neale Hurston details this ritual in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938). In order to summon the ghost of its occupant, rum and money were first thrown on a grave and then it was beaten with the calabash stick.

Hurston also witnessed the strange behaviour of a calabash full of water at a Kumina ritual in St Thomas to ensure that the duppy of a dead man had reached his final resting place. The calabash, seemingly under its own volition, rose slowly to the top of the palm booth in which the ceremony was being held and then gradually descended. As bowls of water are used in some African-Caribbean religious ceremonies as portals by which spirits may enter or exit, there is a strong implication that the calabash was being moved by the spirit of the deceased.

Calabashes were also used in the process of “obeah pulling”. Writing in the 1890s, African-Jamaican clergyman Thomas Banbury described how cups made from calabashes were placed on a sick man’s skin. When they were removed, their contents were emptied into a basin along with lime juice and ashes. The latter ingredients were believed to kill any obeah that had come out of the patient’s body.

 

Next time…

As we hit October, I thought I’d pick something Hallowe’en related, albeit tenuously, so the next post will be looking Bat-wing.

 

 

 


Sources

Photograph by Franz Xaver < https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACrescentia_cujete_3.jpg&gt;

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), pp. 75-76, 137.

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), pp. 12-13.

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), pp. 45, 55-56.

 

 

 

 

Pigeon peas aka Gungu peas (cajanus cajan)

In a previous entry on Rosemary, I looked at how it was used to stop duppies from entering one’s house. This post takes a step back and looks at a legume which was utilised to prevent duppies from leaving their graves in the first place.

In Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote that pigeon peas were planted on graves in the belief that “as the roots grow downward this will prevent the ghost from taking the opposite direction”

The peas were boiled before being planted in the west of Jamaica “as the peas cannot shoot out of the ground, so the ghost must remain in the ground.”

Beckwith’s informant, Simon Falconer, told the anthropologist of an alternative method whereby country people take three grains of peas, tie them up in a piece of new calico, and, going to the grave a couple of minutes before the time of day at which the man died, they dig a hole, bury the bundle, and say, “You ‘tan’ deh wid dis”’’.”

Another way of using peas at a burial was witnessed by Zora Neale Hurston. Dried corn and peas were thrown into a grave along with rum before the coffin was lowered in. Hurston doesn’t specify what kind of peas were used or what they and the corn were for. However, as rum had previously been poured into the grave “for the dead” I’m guessing they either were meant to provide food for the deceased’s duppy or to appease it.

What’s in a name?

Well, in this case possible confusion! When writing on the crops grown by small settlers, Beckwith identified pigeon peas as red kidney beans. In fact they are cajanus cajan, also known as Gungu/Gungo or Congo peas – a staple crop used for both food and fertiliser. Beckwith does mention Gungu/Congo peas but as something quite separate from pigeon peas.

She also used the spelling “pidgeon” whereas I have reverted to the more modern or uniform spelling of the word.

A Pigeon_pea_(Cajanus_cajan_(L_)_Huth);_branch_with_flowers_an_Wellcome_V0042649      B      Pigeon_pea_(Red_gram,_Thuvarai_in_Tamil)_02

 

Next time…

The spirit lore Beckwith collected about the calabash.

 

Sources

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. 76, 18.

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), p. 43.

Picture credits: A)  Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), branch with flowers and pods, Coloured line engraving. 1686 -Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images,(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

B) pigeon peas by Nandhinikandhasamy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

Duppies, shadows and souls

As these terms will be used on occasions throughout my blog, I thought a brief description of each may be useful. The idea that a person possesses more than one soul or spirit is common in a number of African-Jamaican folk religions. These spirits are:

The Soul

After death, the soul ascends to heaven or descends to hell. However, it is believed to remain on this earthly plane for some days after death. In the early twentieth century, Walter Jekyll, an Englishman who lived in Jamaica and made a collection of African-Jamaican folk stories, was told by his informants that people had two spirits. One of these spirits was:

“from God and the other not from God. The one from God is good, and the one not from God may be either good or bad. At death the God-given spirit flies up upon a tree, and goes to heaven on the third day. The other spirit remains on earth as Duppy. Its abiding place is the grave of the dead man, but it wanders about at night.”

The Shadow

Whilst the soul and the duppy exist after death, the shadow belongs to the living. It can be trapped and manipulated by those who wish to harm its owner. Barry Chevannes described the shadow as an extension of a person’s self or personality. If the shadow is separated from the self it may lead to madness.

Some writers on Caribbean religions class the shadow and the duppy as one and the same. Mervyn Alleyne and Arvilla Payne-Jackson note that in modern Jamaica, “shadow” has largely fallen out of use. Prior to this, soul/shadow/duppy were at times used interchangeably by commentators on African-Jamaican folk religions. For example, in Jekyll’s Jamaica Song and Story (1907) both the duppy and the soul are referred to as “shadows”: “During sleep, these spirits [the duppy and the soul] leave the body and go to other people’s houses in search of food. Being shadows themselves, they feed on the shadow of food and on the smell of food….”

The Duppy

Appearance – As well as maintaining an interest in earthly matters such as eating, many duppies looked exactly as they had done in life with the exception that they floated about a couple of feet above the ground. Alternately, they appeared clothed in the white garments that were commonly used to dress a corpse (Beckwith mentions white flannel suits for men and white muslin dresses for women), with their heads bound up in cloth.

Who are duppies? – As the duppy made up part of a person’s essence, anyone had the potential to become a duppy but this process seems to have been automatic in the case of babies who died before baptism. Duppies can also appear in animal form. Those recorded by Beckwith included duck ants, cats, dogs, goats, pigs, cows and horses. Alleyne and Payne-Jackson note that the gender of duppies can be identified by their smell. Female duppies smell of bananas and male duppies of jack fruit or rum.

Duppy behaviour – Although some duppies could be malevolent, not all duppy behaviour was negative. Jekyll noted how “[a] good Duppy will watch over and protect the living”. However, “good duppies” are a rarity in descriptions of their behaviour during the time that Beckwith was researching. Many of the instances of duppies and the customs surrounding them recorded by Beckwith and other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the early twentieth century are concerned with ways to deal with “bad” duppies. For example, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist Joseph John Williams, collected a number of accounts of poltergeist or other ghostly activity which was attributed to duppies. These included the disembodied arms which were witnessed striking a dying woman by a priest who had arrived to administer her the last rites. A school near a mission station in the Dry Harbour Mountains was bombarded with stones thrown by unseen hands and doors opened and shut of their own accord at another mission house in All Saints.

There are a number of explanations as to why many duppies behave badly. Zora Neale Hurston attributed duppies’ sinister or mischievous behaviour to the idea that when the duppy leaves the body at the time of death, the heart and brain of the deceased are no longer able to restrain its actions and it will occupy itself with malevolence. Another reason was that the duppy was unhappy about the way their funeral and other death rituals had performed. Unresolved grudges or the deceased being owed money which had not been paid were also common explanations for hauntings or other duppy-derived misfortune. Other malevolent duppies were those who had been evil or unpleasant people in their earthly lives or had been captured and manipulated by Obeah practitioners to cause harm.

George Eaton Simpson, writing in the 1950s, noted how Obeah men and women weren’t the only ones who may wish to utilise the services of a duppy. Simpson was told by his informants that if a duppy had been “dismissed” properly at its funeral or Nine Night it would not return. However, sometimes the duppy’s living relatives would not dismiss the spirit as “they may want to recall it for special assignments later on.”

 

Next time…  We’re heading back to the plant world with a look at Pidgeon Peas – one of the plants that can help prevent a duppy rising from his or her grave in the first place.

 

Sources

Walter Jekyll (collected by and ed.), Jamaica Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Dancing Tunes and Ring Tunes (reprint, with new introductory essays by Philip Sherlock, Louise Bennett, and Rex Nettleford, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966, of 1907 edn, London: David Nutt), pp. 175-176, 147.

Barry Chevannes, Rastafari, Roots and Ideology (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 27.

Arvilla Payne-Jackson and Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), pp. 71-72, 136.

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), pp. 70, 89, 90, 58, 123, 100.

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), pp. 43-44.

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), pp. 17, 9, 7.

George Eaton Simpson Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti (3rd edn, enlarged, Rio Piedras: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, 1980), p. 166.

 

 

 

The use of cotton trees in African-Jamaican folk religions

As mentioned in previous posts the cotton tree had the reputation for both being the abode of spirits and as a sacred plant. These two strands came together in the use of cotton trees in Myal spiritual practices. In Black Roadways, Martha Warren Beckwith based some of her description of Myal on an account written by an African-Jamaican clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Banbury in the late nineteenth century. Here Banbury described how Myalists (or Mialists as he called them) caught shadows which been trapped by duppies in the cotton trees:

We now give an account of the shadow-catching. This is invariably done at night… The person suspected of having lost his shadow was taken to the cotton tree where it was spell bound, or to which it was “nailed”, as the people expressed it. The mialmen were accompanied thither by a large concourse of people. The victim was dressed in white, with a white kerchief about his head. Eggs and fowls were taken along with cooked food to the cotton tree. The mialmen paraded up and down before the tree, with white cloths over their shoulders; and all the people joining in the chorus. Alternatively the cotton tree was pelted with eggs, and the necks of fowls rung off, and their bodies cast at it. This was done to propitiate the “deaths,” or “duppies” that had the shadow enthralled at the trees, the song and dancing proceeded more vigorously as the shadow began to make signs of leaving the tree. A white basin, with water to receive it, was held up; after they had sung, yelled and danced to their hearts’ content, they all of a sudden caught up the person, and ran home, with him, affirming that the shadow was caught, covered up in a basin. Upon reaching home a cloth was wet in the water, and applied to the head of the patient and the shadow was said to be restored. This is the process of shadow-catching… Many shadows were caught in this way on the sugar estates, and pens in St. James, Hanover, Westmoreland, &c.’

A more basic method to summon duppies was for Myalists to ‘form a circle about the tree and each one beat the earth with a stone in rhythm to a song’.

 

Beckwith also gathered information about the use of cotton trees in Myal religion from contemporary African-Jamaicans. One of her informants, a Maroon Myal man named James White, said that only those cotton trees which had been planted on top of a grave had a significance in Myal: ‘Such trees [were] called “worship cotton trees” and may well be regarded as tombs of the dead.’

Another informant, George Parkes, described how, ‘when a Myal Man sets a duppy, he goes alone to a cottonwood with an offering of rice, chicken, and rum, and cuts marks on the tree with his machete or pocketknife in the shape of circles of crosses which he alone can interpret; then he beats one stone upon another and sings “in an unknown tongue”.’

Parkes’s information is interesting as he describes the Myal person as working alone. Many depictions of Myal from the 18th century onwards tend to stress its communal nature – as illustrated by the example of shadow-catching described by Banbury above. However, Myal as a solitary practice also took place in early twentieth century Jamaica, as Elmira Barrows, a former Myalist, also told Beckwith that some Myal leaders worked alone at cotton trees, dancing, singing and drumming around the tree in order to dislodge spirits.

Barrows gave Beckwith an account of how these methods were used by a Myalman from St. Mary named Fifee Bogle. A duppie called Bomshee had been plaguing a young woman. Fifee Bogle stood drumming and singing under the cotton tree which contained Bomshee: ‘Then Bomshee came down from the tree. Bogle caught him.’ And the young woman was freed from her tormenter.

 

Next time…

I’ll be temporarily abandoning Beckwith’s plant odyssey and head back to the world of spirits to look at duppies, shadows and souls.

 

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), p. 23.

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), pp. 145-48.