Rollin’ Calf (part 1): “a very bad duppy indeed”

Time for some Halloween spookiness. This month’s post features a duppy  which Martha Beckwith described as an “especially dangerous duppy”. According to Beckwith, the Rollin’ Calves live in:

“the roots of cottonwood trees and in clumps of bamboo but also in caves and deserted houses.”

They leave these abodes at night to “follow sugar wains because of their love of molasses, or to break into cattle pens.”

Beckwith was told that, as well as Obeah practitioners,

“[m]urderers and butchers and I know not how many other reprobates become Rolling-calves when they die.”

Folklorist MacEdward Leach also noted that butchers were likely to become Calves after death, especially those who “give short weight”.

cropped calf

Beckwith described the Calf as looking like a black and white goat with blazing red eyes. Its back feet are those of a goat whilst the front pair consist of one human foot and one horse’s hoof. It has a collar round its neck with a chain attached which drags along the ground. Writing in the early twentieth century, Frank Cundall  quoted an informant who said that Satan gave the Calf the chain to warn people of its approach.

When it came to the other forms that the Rolling Calf may take, Beckwith cited Thomas Banbury. According to Banbury Rollin’ Calves may appear as a:

 “cat, dog, hog, goat, horse or bull, but the most dangerous is the brindled cat [see picture below], and… it [the Calf] has the power to grow from the size of a cat or dog to that of a horse or bull.”

millie - cropped

Unwary travellers are most likely to encounter Rollin’ Calves at night. MacEdward Leach noted how Calves will try to kill their victims by breathing their “hot breath” on them.

As to the Calf’s name. Martha Beckwith believed that rollin’ meant roaming. However Leach said she had got this wrong. In his view, rollin’ means roaring.

Next time… How to prevent a Rollin’ Calf breathing its hot breath on you. Then back to things arboreal with more on the Tree of Good and Evil.


Sources (in order of first appearances in text)

Title quote from Black Roadways, p. 100.

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. 100-101.

MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81, p. 69.

Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), pp. 87-94, p. 91.

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), in Black Roadways, p. 100.

Image credits: Rollin’ Calf illustration by abookofcreatures (© A Book Of Creatures) –

Photograph of brindled cat by Simon Noel. Brindled cat posed by Millie.






Physic Nut (Jatropha curcas)

This month’s post looks at the links between the Physic Nut tree (Jatropha curcas) and Christ’s crucifixion. However, I’m starting on a more prosaic note. In “Jamaican Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith  wrote that Physic Nut was “Used generally as a purgative”. As well as being an emetic, according to the Plants for the Future website, Physic Nut has many other healing properties. Here are just a few of them:

 “The leaves … can be used to treat a wide range of medicinal conditions such as coughs, convulsions, jaundice, fevers, rheumatic pains, guinea worm sores, wounds and cuts, sores, etc. The seeds can be used as a purgative but only in small doses. Oil obtained from the seeds are used in the treatment of skin diseases and rheumatic pains. It also stimulates hair growth. The root bark is used for sores, dysentery, and jaundice.”

Plants for a Future also warn that all parts of the plant are poisonous.



Aside from its medicinal properties, the Physic Nut has strong associations in the Caribbean with Christ’s crucifixion. For example, in the book Bush Doctor which lists examples of the lore surrounding Caribbean plants, Sylvester Ayre calls the tree the Crucifixion Tree, stating that: “according to believers the red blood-like substance that oozes from the tree when cut at Easter, symbolizes the blood Christ shed on the cross, which was reputedly made of physic wood”.

When doing her Caribbean research in the early 1920s, Martha Beckwith was told of the Physic Nut tree’s propensity to bleed on Good Friday at 12 noon and one of her Pukkumerian informants who had tried this herself, said to Beckwith that the substance oozing from the wood “ really was blood’”.


Next time…. I’ll be looking at the folklore surrounding a few other trees whose wood was believed to have been used for Christ’s Cross.


Sources (in order of appearance in post)

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. 24.

“Plants for a Future”

Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 10.

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. 40.

Image credits: Photograph of West African Jatropha curcas by R.K. Henning at

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”.



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:

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,