Cotton trees: the African connection

It is possible that cotton trees (ceiba) came to be associated with African-Jamaican spiritual beliefs because of the significance of the tree in West African religions. Robert Voeks notes how today it “remains one of Africa’s most sacred species”. In the Caribbean the earliest Africans would have seen the tree growing there and continued to venerate it.

In parts of Africa the cotton tree was regarded as the abode of spirits. The Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley commented how the Twi peoples of Ghana believed that Sasabonsam and duppies lived in cotton trees. Forest travellers could tell if a tree was inhabited by Sasabonsam because it had red earth around its roots. Red seems to be a colour associated with Sasabonsam as the creature/spirit was covered in long red hair. I think I need to look into what significance red as a colour has amongst African peoples i.e. does it have any specific connections with the spirit world?

A slightly different take on how the cotton tree found in the Caribbean came to have links with the spirit world appears in Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English. They believe that such associations arose because of similarities with the Akata tree which was held sacred in Ashanti religion. They don’t provide a Latin name for the Akata. However, I think it belongs to the Bombax genus, possibly Bombax buenopozense which is native to Ghana. This tree has associations with the spirit world in the form of being the abode of spirits and used as a shrine to ancestors.

 

Sources

Robert Voeks, “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas”, Geographical Review, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), p. 73.

Mary Kingsley, Kingsley, Mary, Travels in West Africa (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 2003, of orig. edn, London & New York: Macmillan, 1897), p. 509.

F.G. Cassidy & R.B. Le Page, Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd edition, Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2002), p. 124.

James Fairhead, Svend E. Holsoe and Melissa Leach, African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth Century Diaries (Bloomingdale and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), p 313.

 

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Cotton trees (ceiba)

 

In last month’s post I looked at how bamboo was used as the haunt of duppies and this month I continue the theme of duppy habitats with Martha Warren Beckwith’s take on the mighty Cotton tree (sometimes called the silk-cotton or cottonwood tree; Latin = ceiba).

 

Beckwith wrote that:

In Jamaica the cotton tree ‘may attain 150 feet in height, the trunk sometimes rising 80 feet without branching. Curious branch-like roots support its base.’

Duppies, a type of spirit, live in the ‘great chambers’ created by these cotton tree roots, emerging between ‘seven in the evening to five in the morning and at twelve o’clock at midday…’

African-Jamaicans feared ‘any cottonwood and will not cut it without a propitiatory offering of rum… The cult of the dead is strongly imposed upon the worship of the cottonwood, and the animistic idea of a tree spirit is less defined than that of a ghost of the dead harbouring in its branches. Cotton trees in graveyards are particularly feared, and mice or lizards that live in their branches are regarded as duppies of the dead.’

Other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the late post-emancipation era (1880- 1938) commented on the link between duppies and cotton trees. At the end of the nineteenth century, Alice Spinner wrote that cotton trees were left alone as they were believed to be ‘chosen haunt of duppies’. Fallen branches were not used as fuel because of the fear there may be duppies in them.

Links between cotton trees and duppies continued into the twentieth century. In the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was told that cotton trees should not be planted too near a house for fear that duppies would inhabit the trees and ‘’”throw heat” on the people as they come and go about the house’.

 cotton-tree-my-pic

Origins of these beliefs

What prompted the link between cotton trees and duppies? Beckwith, keen to take a scientific approach to folklore, looked for a rational explanation, wondering if ‘the fact that the yellow snake in Jamaica… sleeps in hollows of fig and cotton trees is perhaps one reason for the fear of … the duppy-haunted precincts of the cotton tree.’

Alice Spinner and some other researchers of Jamaican folklore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, associated the beliefs with trace memories of trees as a source of religious worship. She wrote: ‘Strictly speaking, however, I imagine that these cotton-tree spirits, although confounded with “duppies”, belong to the order of ancient tree-deities,… It is evidently one of the old imported African beliefs, and one that, since it has saved so many noble trees, we may be grateful for.’

Also in the nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury likened African-Jamaican lore concerning cotton trees to the Druidic worship of the oak tree in Britain. ‘It is still held in veneration by the blacks, and some fears still entertained of it. So great was the veneration and dread entertained of the cotton tree, that it was a difficult matter to get one cut down, the negroes believing that if they did so, the “deaths” which took up their abode at its roots would injure them. The cotton trees were believed to have the power of transporting themselves at nights, and holding conference at a rendezvous with one another.’

Moving into the twentieth century, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist, Joseph John Williams pondered if duppies actually derived their name from the Ashanti word for particularly large tree roots.

He also wondered if African-Jamaican attitudes towards the cotton tree as home of duppies related to the belief in some parts of West Africa that Sasabonsam, a large human-like, ogre-ish creature covered in long red hair, was believed to live in cotton trees.

Next time…

More on African connections

 

Sources

Martha Warren Beckwith, Jamaica Proverbs (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New York: Publications of the Folk-lore Foundation, 1925), p. 27.

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. 89, 122, 145.

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. 19.

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.

Alice Spinner, A Reluctant Evangelist and Other Stories (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1896), pp. 317, 324.

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), pp. 61, 156.

 

 

Bamboo (bambusa vulgaris)

This month’s featured plant is Bamboo (bambusa vulgaris).

109px-Bambusa_vulgaris_(Dominica)

Beckwith wrote that duppies lived ‘in the roots of… bamboo thickets and feed upon bamboo root.’

In her earlier work on Jamaican proverbs, Martha had noted that a particularly fearsome type of duppy, the rolling calf, was reputed to lurk in ‘bamboo thickets’ as well as in ‘the roots of silk cotton trees, and empty sugar houses.’

Uses in housing

As an aside, Bamboo didn’t just provide housing for duppies. Jamaicans also used it as a building material for their abodes.

Beckwith described the house of one of her informants, Wilfred Bonito as being ‘built out of seasoned bamboo cut when it was partly ripe and would harden, not rot, with age. He set up a frame and tied the poles firmly together… then wattled the sides closely with strips of bamboo and plastered the whole, outside and in, with a mixture of red earth and wood ashes, smoothing it neatly and whitewashing the surface.’

Next time

More on the habitats of duppies….

 

Sources

Picture credit: Bamboo in the rainforest of Dominica W.I.By © Hans Hillewaert /, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6288711

Beckwith, Martha Warren, 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. 89; 8.

Beckwith, Martha Warren, “Jamaica Proverbs”, Beckwith, Martha Warren, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 14.

 

 

 

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, having just broken my New Year’s resolution to cut down on sugar by consuming the best part of a pack of jelly beans, 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

 

Sources

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.)

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

 

Next time

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

Rosemary (Croton Linearis Jacq.)

I thought this topic would suitable for December as the 20th of the month is, according to British folk lore, a time when the veil between the material and the spirit worlds is permeable. With that in mind, here’s a little something from Martha Beckwith’s Jamaican plant lore which may help keep unwanted visitors (of a spiritual nature) at bay.

Beckwith wrote that:

Rosemary, sometimes mixed with cow dung, was burned in a house to drive away duppies ‘or sprigs of it are rubbed over the body or scattered about the house for the same purpose.’

She was told by her informants that ‘”White people also use it”’.

Beckwith attributed the use of Rosemary to protect a person from malign influences was attributable to the plant’s strong smell as other plants with a pungent odour were used for similar purposes in Jamaica.

In British plant lore rosemary also can protect from spiritual and physical ills. For example, Margaret Baker notes that in parts of Devon people believed that planting a rosemary bush near a house would cleanse the house of evil and could keep witches out. Drinking from a spoon made from rosemary was supposed to protect one from poison.

In Britain there are Christian spiritual associations with rosemary – associations which may have travelled to Jamaica and played a part in its usage to repel malevolent forces. The plant’s blue flowers were once believed to have been white until, during the flight into Egypt, the Virgin Mary placed the infant Jesus’s clothes on a rosemary bush to dry. An alternate version holds that she lay her cloak upon it. In British plant lore, rosemary is believed to flower at midnight on Christmas Eve.

The caveat here is that in British rosemary is Rosmarinus officinalis whereas Jamaican rosemary is Croton linearis Jacq., a type of euphorbia. However, as both plants are similar in appearance, British settlers in Jamaica may have named Croton linearis Jacq. after a plant theory were familiar with. Therefore, it may not be impossible that the British spiritual associations with Rosmarinus officinalis were also applied to the Jamaican rosemary?

Rosemary

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. 94.

Martha Warren Beckwith,, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), pp. 26, 27.

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), pp. 132-133.