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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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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)