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.

256px-Eryngium_foetidum_L__(6674360625)
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

 

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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.

 

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.