Devil’s Backbone (Centrostachys aspera)

This month’s featured plant, Devil’s Backbone (Centrostachys aspera), aka Devil’s Horsewhip, is associated with the spirit world in name only. I’m guessing that the name is based on the plant’s appearance. It is described by Cassidy and Le Page in the Dictionary of Jamaican English as having “sharp burs… along a whip-like flowering stalk”.

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What’s in a name?

Martha Warren Beckwith gave the Latin name for Devil’s Backbone as Centrostachys aspera but more modern sources such as the Natural History Museum of Jamaica Common Names Database  and the Dictionary of Jamaican English classify it as Achyranthes aspera or Achyranthes indica. As the Latin names for plants change periodically, I’m guessing it may have altered since Beckwith’s day.

However Devils Backbone/Horsewhip is classified, the usage of Centrostachys aspera and Achyranthes aspera in Jamaican folk medicine is very similar. In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Beckwith described it being boiled to make a tea to drink to treat colds and an early 20th century list of Jamaican medicinal plants by Morris Steggarda included Devil’s Backbone as a treatment for colic. More modern accounts, such as the LMH Official Dictionary of Jamaican Herbs & Medicinal Plants, also state that the plant is used as a remedy for colds, colic and venereal disease.

Next time…. Continuing my devilish theme, I’m heading to the other side of the Atlantic to check out some British plants associated with Beelzebub.

 

Sources (in order of appearance in text)

F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002), p. 148.

Natural History Museum of Jamaica Common Names Database: http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/

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. 16.

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. 432.

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), p. 17.

Image credits: Achyranthes aspera by Kurt Stüber: https://commons,wikinmedia.org/wiki/File:Achyranthes_aspera0.jpg

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Ruth Landes & The City of Women

For International Women’s Day this post celebrates another American Boasian-trained anthropologist who researched in the field of African-American and African-Caribbean belief systems in the early- to mid- 20th century.

Ruth Landes (1908-1991) undertook research into Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil, between 1938 and 1939. Candomblé is one of a number of religions which originated amongst enslaved Africans in Brazil that combine elements of African and Roman Catholic spirituality. It is a possession religion whereby adepts are possessed by spirits, the orixás.

Landes’ experiences are detailed in her book, The City of Women, first published in 1947. Here, she recorded accounts of visiting Candomblé places of worship, participating in ceremonies and interviewing members of the faith.

 

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At the time Landes was conducting her fieldwork, there were possibly as many as 150 Candomblé meeting places (terreiros) in Bahia, each with its own religious leader, pantheon of spirits and spirit mediums (filhas de santo). Most of the Bahian terreiros were led by women and the filhas de santo were also mainly female.

Ruth Landes paid special attention to women’s participation within Candomblé. This stance led to criticism from one reviewer, the renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who argued that she had neglected the importance of men’s roles in the faith and put too much emphasis on homosexuality amongst some of its male priests.

He also disagreed with Landes’ view on the origins of Candomblé. In her introduction to the 1994 edition of The City of Women, Sally Cole argues that Herskovits, as an Africanist, felt that Landes underplayed the African elements of Candomblé. In Landes’ opinion, although Candomblé had African influences, rather than being a survival of an African religion in the New World, it was “new living Brazilian religion” which had developed out of a set of particular circumstances and mix of cultures in Bahia.

Much like Zora Neale Hurston Landes used the technique of mixing ethnography with autobiography in her writing. This too drew criticism from contemporary reviewers. As Kamala Visweswaran points out, because of this mixing of styles both women’s works were “dismissed for not being ‘proper ethnography”.

The idea, in the early 20th century, of an anthropologist considering their own background in relation to the people they were studying was unusual at the time. Nowadays, anthropologists, especially those working in the postcolonial and feminist arena, acknowledge how forward thinking Landes’ work was, not only through her use of autobiography to situate herself (a white, Jewish woman) in the text but also in her emphasis on “race and gender”.

Ruthlandes

In many ways, Ruth Landes’ concluding statement in The City of Women sums up the book and additionally provides an apt thought for this International Women’s Day. When discussing with Brazilian friends what she’d tell those back in the USA about her experiences in Bahia, she replied, “I’ll tell them about the women. I think they make Brazil great”.

 

Next time… I investigate the Devil’s Backbone (in the ethnobotanical rather than the chiropractic sense).

 

Sources (in order of appearance in text)

Ruth Landes, The City of Women (with an introduction by Sally Cole, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994, reprint of orig. edn, New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. ix –xxv, 148.

Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis & London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1994), p. 7.

Image credits: picture of the cover of The City of Women by H.R. Sparkes

Portrait of Ruth Landes – author unknown – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARuthlandes.gif

 

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.
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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.

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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

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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