God-Bush aka Jamaican Mistletoe (Oryctanthus Occidentalis)

I’ve chosen God-Bush (Oryctanthus Occidetnalis) as this month’s plant mainly because of its name’s associations with Yuletide rather than for any particular association with the spirit world.

In a letter entitled “A Name for Mistletoe in Jamaica” published in the journal Folklore in 1923, H. Lambert wrote that he had been told by the British anthropologist, James Frazer (of Golden Bough fame) that in Jamaica Mistletoe was called ‘God-Bush’ (Lambert, p. 246). Frazer appears to have applied the name ‘Mistletoe’ in a generic sense, as a parasitic plant which grew on trees, rather than referring specifically to Viscum album, the European plant known as Mistletoe.

God-Bush or Jamaican Mistletoe, (Oryctanthus Occidentalis) is part of the Loranthacea family of parasitic plants. It is used in Jamaican folk medicine to aid uterine problems, insomnia and high blood pressure (Henry & Harris, p. 22). Although as yet I can find no Jamaican spirit lore attached to the God-Bush, Cassidy and Le Page in the Dictionary of Jamaican English believed that the plant was so named because it “grew without ever touching the ground”, thus appearing to have supernatural qualities (Cassidy & Le Page, p. 200).

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The idea of a plant growing in a ‘liminal zone’ having supernatural powers also appears in lore attached to the European Mistletoe. Margaret Baker comments that because Viscum album grows on a host tree, its habitat, suspended between earth and sky, contributed to its links with the supernatural for the Celtic peoples of Europe (Baker, p. 99).

Another connection between the God-Bush and European Mistletoe is that in Jamaican plant lore, the former should never be cut with “metal scissors” or allowed to touch the ground, otherwise it will lose its powers (Henry & Harris, p. 22). In European folklore and mythology, Viscum album can be cut with metal blades but they must never be made from iron. According to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder’s account of the use of Mistletoe in medicine in Gaul (modern France), it too would lose its power if it touched the earth (cited in Frazer, p. 751).

 Next time…. its back to Rice, this time focussing on the darker side of the lore.

 

Sources

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008).

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

James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (abridged edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

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).

Lambert, “A Name for the Mistletoe in Jamaica”, Folklore, vol. 34, No. 3 (Sept. 29, 1923).

Image credits: Oryctanthus Occidentalis illustration by H.R. Sparkes

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20th December: St Thomas’s Eve

I mentioned in my previous entry on Jamaican Rosemary that December 20th was a time in Britain and other parts of northern Europe when spirits were believed to roam the earthly realm. In the Christian calendar it is the eve of the day dedicated to the apostle, St Thomas, who has his own associations with the spirit world (see below).

So this month’s blog post is slightly off topic as it outlines some of the spirit lore associated with December 20th and St Thomas’s Eve. I say “off topic” as a) Martha Beckwith doesn’t mention lore surrounding this date and b) I haven’t been able to find out (as yet) if similar beliefs are held in Jamaica. However, I’m feeling rebellious. So here we go….

In Britain, there was a tradition that from December 20thuntil Christmas Eve, ghosts could walk the earth. That spirits were active at this time also appears in European folklore. In a book of Christmas traditions Clement Miles recorded that St Thomas himself would appear in some Bohemian cemeteries at midnight in a chariot of fire. All the men named Thomas who were buried in the churchyards would rise from their graves and accompany the saint to the churchyard cross, which glowed red with “supernatural radiance”. There St. Thomas would kneel and pray. Then he would bless the risen corpses before vanishing beneath the cross and each of his namesakes would return to their respective graves.

Was the idea of the ghosts rising from their graves to greet St Thomas the origins of the notion that this period before Christmas was a time when spirits were more likely to wander the earth? Or did that belief exist before the story of St Thomas’s nocturnal visits to graveyards. Unfortunately I have no date for either belief. Miles was recording European folklore in the early 20th century but the examples he was given may have older provenance.

Another theory as to why St Thomas’s Eve may be a time for ghostly visitations is that in the northern hemisphere the winter solstice usually falls around the 21st/22nd December. This means that the days are at their shortest and darkest. Therefore the general gloom and early nightfall could have led to an increased nervousness about wandering spirits – ghostly activity often being reported as occurring after dark.

 

Connections

To make this post a teensy bit less tenuous, there is a connection between the use of Jamaican Rosemary to prevent unwanted visitations and purification rituals practised in northern Europe in the run up to Christmas:

Just as burning Jamaican rosemary was believed to cleanse a house of spirts, the purifying effects of smoke were also used in parts of Austria on St. Thomas’s Eve. Smoke from burning incense, along with holy water, was used to sanctify houses and farm-buildings.

 

St Thomas stained glass

 

Next time… More about duppies: their abodes and what they like to eat.

 

Sources

All European folklore examples from Clement Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition (London: T.F. Unwin, 1912), p. 225.

Picture credit: stained glass of St Thomas probing the risen Christ’s wounds in St Walpurga’s church, Alsace by Ralph Hamman, 2015 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.)