The River Mumma: Part 2 – an African connection?

Last month’s post concerned the Jamaican water spirit, the River Mumma. This month I’m looking at where her origins may lie.

Some late 19th and early 20th century commentators on African-Jamaican folk culture such as Martha Warren Beckwith and Thomas Banbury, described the River Mumma as being a type of mermaid. There could well be some truth in this as Jamaican folk culture contained a number of British or Irish influences. Northern European mermen and mermaids were part fish, part human creatures. Mermaids were commonly described as having long hair, which, like the River Mumma, they spent hours combing. Also like the River Mumma, they could be generous to humans. Similarly, like the River Mumma, at times they were feared. Folklore writer Marc Alexander notes that sailors, in particular, viewed mermaids “as harbingers of misfortune”.

Aside from mermaids, other types of female spirit are connected with bodies of water in British folklore. In an examination of British hauntings from the Early Modern period to the present day, historian Owen Davies gives examples of links between female ghosts and rivers, lakes, and ponds. For instance, spirits described as White Ladies are associated with “deep pools and other watery places”. Although some White Ladies are believed to be the spirits of drowned women, others, such as one Shropshire White lady who “lived in a pool and would come out and dance on the green at night”. This is more akin to fairy lore rather than ghost traditions.
160px-Clonfert_mermaid_crop

So there is a strong argument that the River Mumma may have British or Irish origins.

However, not all writers on African-Jamaican folk beliefs agreed with the idea that the River Mumma had her roots in the concept of the European mermaid. The American anthropologist Joseph John Williams  argued instead that her origins lay in the Ashanti belief in “the divine origin of water”.

Aside from the Ashanti, other African peoples, such as the Ifa and the Yoruba attributed deities or important spirits to bodies of water; spirits which have to be propitiated by the people using the water of those seas, rivers, streams and lakes. Yoruban water goddesses include Yemoja/ Yemanji, Ọbà and Oshun. Yemoja is often depicted as a mermaid.

341px-Yemoja_Abayomi_Barber
yemoja

 

Although Thomas Banbury believed that the River Mumma arose originally from the idea of the “mermaid or water nymph of England”, he went on to mention that during the era of slavery in Jamaica that sacrifices were made to her:

“It is a well-known fact that the slaves on water-works used to persuade their overseers or masters, to sacrifice an ox at the fountain-head of the water turning the mill in times of much drought, in order to propitiate the mistress of the river, that she may cause rain and give an adequate supply of water to turn the mill. It is said a bullock was yearly killed on some sugar estates at such places for this purpose.”

So far I’ve yet to find any examples of sacrifices being offered to mermaids in British folklore. And the sacrificial offerings which appeared in Banbury’s account fits more with the idea of the River Mumma as a powerful goddess who must be propitiated than with the coquette-ish European mermaid. So whilst the River Mumma may contain elements of British mermaid lore, I feel that her roots lie more in Africa than in Europe.

Next time….
Back to terra firma with a look at the mysterious Mammy plant.

 

Sources (in order of appearance in post)
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. 101.
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. 35, cited in Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica, pp. 172, 173.
Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002), p. 193.
Owen Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 23.
L.H. Hayward, “Shropshire Folklore of Yesterday and To-Day”, Folklore vol. 49, (1938),s p. 239, cited in Davies, The Haunted, p. 22.
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), p. 173.
Image credits: An Irish mermaid by Trounce https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClonfert_mermaid_crop.jpg
Image credits: Yemoja by Abayomi Barber https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYemoja_Abayomi_Barber.jpg

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The River Mumma – part 1

For this month’s entry the watery theme continues with a look at the River Mumma (aka the Rubba Missis, Fair Maid, River Maid or Sea Mahmy). Martha Warren Beckwith described this Jamaican spirit as a kind of mermaid who inhabited bodies of water, sitting on the banks at midday, combing her long black hair. George Parkes, one of Beckwith’s African-Jamaican informants, told her that River Mummas “live in deep pools away from where people pass. There may be more than one in a pool, but they all look alike. The waters were made for them, and if you catch one the rivers would dry up”.

Parkes said that he had seen a River Mumma himself at a wide pool near St Ann’s Bay. She and two other Mummas had been living there since “ancient times”. Beckwith heard of River Mummas living in the Black River, the Rio Grande, the Great River, the Cabaritta and the Rio Cobra. Writing in the 1960s, 35 years after Beckwith’s Jamaican fieldwork, American folklorist MacEdward Leach stated that the “most famous… sea mahmy” lived “in the great blue hole near Port Antonio.”

320px-Wildlife_on_Black_River,_Jamaica

Aside from her Jamaican informants, Martha Beckwith gleaned information about the River Mumma from the writings of Thomas Banbury. Banbury called the Mumma the “Rubba Missis” and noted that sometimes her comb had been found at fountainheads. Myalists would take food to the river for the Rubba Missis and performed songs and dances there in her honour. Banbury also mentioned that sacrifices were made to the Rubba Missis.

“It is a well-known fact that the slaves on water-works used to persuade their overseers or masters, to sacrifice an ox at the fountain-head of the water turning the mill in times of much drought, in order to propitiate the mistress of the river, that she may cause rain and give an adequate supply of water to turn the mill. It is said a bullock was yearly killed on some sugar estates at such places for this purpose.’”

Thomas Banbury was writing at the end of the nineteenth century but much of his material concerns folk beliefs from nearly 40 years earlier. In Neither Led Nor Driven (2004) which examines African-Jamaican culture in the early 20th century, Brian Moore and Michele Johnson elaborate on the reverence in which River Mummas were held during that period:

“In some communities, where the river mumma made her appearance, people did not eat the fish that came from those rivers, because they were believed to be the children of the river goddess and whoever ate them would suffer.”

Martha Beckwith too had been told that the fish from bodies of water where River Mummas were supposed to live were considered “sacred”. However, George Parkes disagreed with the notion that River Mummas were worshipped, saying that “they can do nothing for people. They cannot talk, and they disappear the moment one sees them”.

His view appears to be an isolated one as other commentators often mentioned the River Mumma’s ability to interact with people. Banbury stated that people could come to harm if they looked into the Mumma’s eyes and anthropologist George Eaton Simpson found a number of beliefs that River Mummas (who he called “River Maids”) could cause misfortune. Conversely, they could also assist people. For example, to gain the River Mumma’s aid in wreaking vengeance on an enemy, a person was instructed to concentrate on the Mumma and then fill “his mouth with river water” and walk:

“downstream in the river, thinking constantly of his enemy. He spits the water in his mouth into the river, and gets out of the river on the same side he entered the stream. After coming out, he makes a wish, the wish being that every morsel of food his enemy eats and every drop of water he drinks “should be evil germs to him”’

In addition, the River Mumma could help people through her capacity to heal. In one example, Simpson was told that if a stone from a river which contained the spirit of the Mumma was placed in sacred water, it was said “to increase the curative powers of the water”.

 

Next time…
I delve deeper to try and locate where the watery origins of the River Mumma lie.

 

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), pp. 101, 102.
MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81, p. 72.
Brian L. Moore and Michele A. Johnson, Neither Led nor Driven: Contesting British Imperialism in Jamaica, 1865-1920 (Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2004), p. 35.
George Eaton Simpson, “Jamaican Revivalist Cults”, Social and Economic Studies, vol. 5, no. 4 (December 1956), pp. i-iv, 321-442, v-vii, pp. 358, 391, 357.
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), p. 172.
N.B. Citations from Thomas Banbury’s Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island taken from the following books: Black Roadways, p. 101; Psychic Phenomenon of Jamaica, p. 172; Neither Led Nor Driven, p. 35.
Image credits: Wildlife on the Black River by Johannes49 at English Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWildlife_on_BlackRiver%2C_Jamaica.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water Weed (Medilia gracilis)

Water weed (medilia gracilis) the star of this month’s post continues the theme of Jamaican plants being utilised to keep away unwanted spirits. In her listings of Jamaican flora, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote that water weed was a type of water marigold “commonly used at night when something seems to be abroad in the house”. It could be burned or mixed with rum and “kept in a bottle to rub the face and especially the back of the neck”.

Water weed was also employed to prevent the duppy of the deceased mooching around their former dwelling place if they had died in there. In such instances, Beckwith was told by her Jamaican informants that water weed should be burned “to run away the spirits”.

Unlike a number of Jamaican plants used to keep duppies at bay such as rosemary  and spirit weed , Beckwith reported that water weed didn’t have a strong odour. However, she speculated it may smell more pungent when burned.

 

Untitled

Next time….
The aquatic theme continues but this time we move away from plant life to investigate the mysterious River Mumma.

 

 

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. 22.

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.

Haunted house image by H.R. Sparkes

 

Spirit Weed (Eryngium foetidum, L.)

 

As Halloween is looming (🎃 🎃 🎃), I thought I’d look at spirit weed (Eryngium foetidum, L.), another plant from Martha Warren Beckwith’s “Jamaican Ethnobotany” (1928) which has properties believed to keep evil entities at bay. Beckwith wrote that “[b]ecause of its pungent odor” spirit weed is universally employed like ‘Rosemary’ and ‘See-me-contract’ to ‘drive away duppies’”.

Zora Neale Hurston, who was investigating Jamaican folk life in the 1930s, was told that if you drank tea made from a branch of spirit weed, “duppies can’t touch you. You can walk into a room where all kinds of evil and duppies are and be perfectly safe.”

However, spirit weed can potentially do more than act as a means to stop bothersome duppies. In their dictionary of Jamaican Herbs and Medicinal Plants, L. Mike Henry and K. Sean Harris mention a different supernatural power attributed to the plant – its ability to “make the person who chews the root invisible”. They note how Jamaican Maroons used spirit weed-induced invisibility as a weapon in their conflicts with the British during the 17th and early 18th centuries. British soldiers reported that that it seemed as if “the trees were fighting them, because they could see the leaves moving and hear the rustling but could see no one.” Whilst I remain open-minded as to whether spirit weed can or could actually induce invisibility, the Maroons were extremely skilled in the art of camouflage, utilising leaves and branches and other forms of foliage to blend into the landscape. Therefore, they may have appeared “invisible” to the British soldiers simply through the effectiveness of their disguise.

256px-Eryngium_foetidum_L__(6674360625)
As with a few of the plants listed by Martha Beckwith there is some dispute about the alternate names for spirit weed. Beckwith said that it was also known as parrot weed. However, in the Dictionary of Jamaican English Cassidy and Le Page say that this was a mistake on Beckwith’s part. The “Common Names” database of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/ gives the common name for spirit weed as “fit weed” or “fit bush”.

An early twentieth century article on Jamaican plants used in folk medicine by Morris Steggarda, contemporaneous with Beckwith’s research, also has “fit weed” as another name for spirit weed and modern botanists G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton categorise it as such in their article “The Medicinal Powers of Jamaican Plants”. They go on to describe how:

 “A decoction of the plant is used for colds and fits in children. The plant is rubbed on the body for fainting fits and convulsions. Since it is said to have magical properties in connection with protection from duppies (ghosts) this may explain its use in convulsions, fainting and hysteria for which it has long been employed in Jamaica”.

 

Next time….
Another plant used to keep away spirits of the dead – water 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), p. 27.
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. 25.
L. Mike Henry and K. Sean Harris, The LMH Official Dictionary of Jamaican Herbs and Medicinal Plants and Their Uses (Kingston: Jamaica, LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), pp. 53-54.
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.
F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002), p. 340.
Morris Steggarda, “Plants of Jamaica Used by Natives for Medicinal Purposes”, American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 31, no. 3 (Jul – Sept., 1929), pp. 431-434, p. 32.
G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton, “Medicinal Plants of Jamaica”, West Indian Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 4 and vol. 3, no. 1 accessed via http://www.herbalstudies.net.
Image credits: Eryngium foetidum L, by Dinesh Valke https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEryngium_foetidum_L._(6674360625).jpg

 

Wangla (sesame indicum)

In her writings on Jamaican ethnobotany, Martha Warren Beckwith never gave the Latin name for wangla but according to the Natural History Museum of Jamaica’s plant names database it is sesamum indicum or sesame. In Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (1929), she noted that the plant was believed to have “Obeah powers” which aided in the detection of theft. If a person had stolen plants from another’s provision grounds and had left a footprint, the victim should:

 “take up the earth carefully in a leaf, measure it with a spoon, and put “four-thirds” as much wangla seed with it and put the whole lot into a pot upon the fire. Call the name of the person you think is the thief and if you are right, as many “bumps” will appear on his foot as there are seeds that “pop.””

 

An alternate method could be used if the thief’s identity was known. Any wangla planted in the provision ground should be hit whilst calling out the thief’s name. This too would bring out bumps on his or her leg. Simon Falconer, one of Beckwith’s informants, told her that the only way the thief could prevent this happening was to have previously eaten some wangla seed.

201px-Sesame_(PSF)

Thomas Banbury  also wrote of some very unpleasant effects that wangla could wreak on thieves. In Banbury’s account, if a thief walked along a road on which a mix of wangla, salt and pepper had be burned, then he or she would contract “Jamaica leprosy”.

 

Next time….
“Nature & Supernatural Nature” goes on its hols. But that doesn’t mean slouching on a sun lounger, slathered in factor 50 and sipping cocktails. Instead, we’re off to Warwickshire, England, to investigate why only bad people can grow parsley.

 

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), pp. 128-129.
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. 10. Cited in Beckwith, Black Roadways, p. 129.
Image credits: Pearson Scott Foresman https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASesame_(PSF).png

Gourds

Gourds have a number of connections with African-Jamaican spiritual practices: as musical instruments, as a form of oracle and as receptacles for charms. In Black Roadways (1929), Martha Warren Beckwith wrote of how the Myal men in the Cockpits area of Jamaica used rattles, called “shakeys” alongside bon, panay and gombay drums to accompany the Myal dance to summon the spirits of the dead. She described a shakey as consisting of  “a gourd fastened to the end of a stick and filled with the shot-like seed of the wild canna or with small stones. Such a rattle is often reported from Africa as an accompaniment of war or medicine dances”.

Writing on Jonkonnu festivities, Beckwith mentioned about the gourd rattle being used in the parade, along with other musical instruments such as the “African Gombay drum”, all of which had associations with the invocation of spirits.

african calabash rattles

 

 

Beckwith also cited the 17th century naturalist, Hans Sloane, who had observed how such rattles were:

”used as fetishes by the Indians of the Mosquito coast… The Indians adorned them with feathers and “planted” them among their houses. Such an object was called a maraca. After feeding for thirteen of fourteen days it would cause the roots to grow and would ‘answer’ questions”.

 

In addition to being employed as percussion instruments and oracles, gourds were also used as receptacles for Obeah practitioners’ charms. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury  detailed the items such charms could contain. These included “pieces of broken bottles, cats’ or serpents’ teeth, nails, and bones, pins, needles, vials, pieces of cloth, &c”. The Obeah person would then recite an incantation over the charm. It was now ready to be buried in the yard or path of the intended victim. If the person stepped on it, the charm was believed to transfer its power to their body.

 

Next time….
The Obeah powers of Wangla are under the spotlight

 

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. 148, pp. 212-213.
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. 12.
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. 6, 7.
Image credits: picture by Tmwatha – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFashion_Calabash.jpg
N.B. Unfortunately Beckwith doesn’t give the Latin name of the type of gourd which she is referring to. This makes finding an image of a specific plant difficult as there are a large number of species of gourd. Therefore I’ve used an image of some African gourd rattles which I think may have been made on similar lines to the Jamaican ones.

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