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”.

Achyranthes_aspera0

 

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: http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/

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,wikinmedia.org/wiki/File:Achyranthes_aspera0.jpg

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The Mammy Plant

This month’s post features the mysterious Mammy Plant. I use the word ‘mysterious’ here for more than just dramatic effect…

As regular (and not so regular) readers of Nature and Supernatural Nature will know this blog examines the spiritual folklore surrounding Jamaican plants mentioned in the writings of the anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith. When Beckwith wrote about the Mammy Plant she said she didn’t know exactly what kind of plant it was but if a person sowed its seed “a relative will die”. She attributed her information to an article In Folk-lore by Frank Cundall, secretary and librarian of the Institute of Jamaica from 1891 to 1937, who collected examples of Jamaican folk culture.

However

Beckwith misquoted Cundall. In his article he actually stated that:

If you plant the seed of a plant called ‘mamy’ you will die” [my emphasis]

So three main questions arise – exactly what is the plant that Beckwith referred to, who exactly is it supposed to kill and by what means?

In the Dictionary of Jamaican English (a recommended read for anyone interested in the folklore of Jamaican plants), F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page write that the origins of the Mammy Plant are “uncertain” but speculate that it may be the “Mammee tree”, Mammea americana.

 

320px-Mammea_americana1 

The Mammea americana is a fruit-bearing tree native to the West Indies and parts of South America. Julia F. Morton in Fruits of Warm Climates (1987) describes it as being similar to “a southern magnolia”. Where the Mammea americana may have links with Beckwith’s “killer” Mammy Plant is in its toxicity.

Morton states that if the usually sweet fruit are of “poor quality” they have a very sour taste. To stop the bitterness, in parts of the Caribbean the fruit is soaked in salted water or wine. For some people the fruit can cause stomach upsets. There have also been reports of the fruit being poisonous to humans and small animals.

Morton goes on to mention that, as well as its fruit, other parts of Mammea americana are toxic. At times this toxicity has been utilised as an insecticide and for medicinal purposes; for example, to treat chiggers and head lice.

Could the belief reported by Beckwith and Cundall, that the Mammy Plant has the propensity to kill people, have its origins in the plant’s sour taste and toxic properties?

Or, to go down a more ominous route, does the plant actually possess a preternatural “power” which results in the deaths of either the cultivator or one of his or her relatives?

I’ll let you decide.

 

NB: I realise the qualities of the Mammy Plant fall into the “sinister” rather than “spiritual” category which is the usual focus for this blog. However, the chance to play plant detective kind of appealed.

Next time…. I celebrate International Women’s Day with a post about anthropologist Ruth Landes and her work on candomblé.

 

Sources (in order of appearance in text)

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. 148, pp. 212-213, p. 87.

Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), 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. 290.

Image credits: picture by Sven Volkens – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki /File%3AMammea_americana1.jpg

Julia F. Morton, Fruits of Warm Climates (Miami: J.F. Morton, 1987), pp. 304-307.

The River Mumma: Part 2 – an African connection?

Last month’s post concerned the Jamaican water spirit, the River Mumma. This month I’m looking at where her origins may lie.

Some late 19th and early 20th century commentators on African-Jamaican folk culture such as Martha Warren Beckwith and Thomas Banbury, described the River Mumma as being a type of mermaid. There could well be some truth in this as Jamaican folk culture contained a number of British or Irish influences. Northern European mermen and mermaids were part fish, part human creatures. Mermaids were commonly described as having long hair, which, like the River Mumma, they spent hours combing. Also like the River Mumma, they could be generous to humans. Similarly, like the River Mumma, at times they were feared. Folklore writer Marc Alexander notes that sailors, in particular, viewed mermaids “as harbingers of misfortune”.

Aside from mermaids, other types of female spirit are connected with bodies of water in British folklore. In an examination of British hauntings from the Early Modern period to the present day, historian Owen Davies gives examples of links between female ghosts and rivers, lakes, and ponds. For instance, spirits described as White Ladies are associated with “deep pools and other watery places”. Although some White Ladies are believed to be the spirits of drowned women, others, such as one Shropshire White lady who “lived in a pool and would come out and dance on the green at night”. This is more akin to fairy lore rather than ghost traditions.
160px-Clonfert_mermaid_crop

So there is a strong argument that the River Mumma may have British or Irish origins.

However, not all writers on African-Jamaican folk beliefs agreed with the idea that the River Mumma had her roots in the concept of the European mermaid. The American anthropologist Joseph John Williams  argued instead that her origins lay in the Ashanti belief in “the divine origin of water”.

Aside from the Ashanti, other African peoples, such as the Ifa and the Yoruba attributed deities or important spirits to bodies of water; spirits which have to be propitiated by the people using the water of those seas, rivers, streams and lakes. Yoruban water goddesses include Yemoja/ Yemanji, Ọbà and Oshun. Yemoja is often depicted as a mermaid.

341px-Yemoja_Abayomi_Barber
yemoja

 

Although Thomas Banbury believed that the River Mumma arose originally from the idea of the “mermaid or water nymph of England”, he went on to mention that during the era of slavery in Jamaica that sacrifices were made to her:

“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.”

So far I’ve yet to find any examples of sacrifices being offered to mermaids in British folklore. And the sacrificial offerings which appeared in Banbury’s account fits more with the idea of the River Mumma as a powerful goddess who must be propitiated than with the coquette-ish European mermaid. So whilst the River Mumma may contain elements of British mermaid lore, I feel that her roots lie more in Africa than in Europe.

Next time….
Back to terra firma with a look at the mysterious Mammy plant.

 

Sources (in order of appearance in post)
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. 101.
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. 35, cited in Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica, pp. 172, 173.
Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002), p. 193.
Owen Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 23.
L.H. Hayward, “Shropshire Folklore of Yesterday and To-Day”, Folklore vol. 49, (1938),s p. 239, cited in Davies, The Haunted, p. 22.
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), p. 173.
Image credits: An Irish mermaid by Trounce https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClonfert_mermaid_crop.jpg
Image credits: Yemoja by Abayomi Barber https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYemoja_Abayomi_Barber.jpg

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Untitled

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

 

Wangla (sesame indicum)

In her writings on Jamaican ethnobotany, Martha Warren Beckwith never gave the Latin name for wangla but according to the Natural History Museum of Jamaica’s plant names database it is sesamum indicum or sesame. In Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (1929), she noted that the plant was believed to have “Obeah powers” which aided in the detection of theft. If a person had stolen plants from another’s provision grounds and had left a footprint, the victim should:

 “take up the earth carefully in a leaf, measure it with a spoon, and put “four-thirds” as much wangla seed with it and put the whole lot into a pot upon the fire. Call the name of the person you think is the thief and if you are right, as many “bumps” will appear on his foot as there are seeds that “pop.””

 

An alternate method could be used if the thief’s identity was known. Any wangla planted in the provision ground should be hit whilst calling out the thief’s name. This too would bring out bumps on his or her leg. Simon Falconer, one of Beckwith’s informants, told her that the only way the thief could prevent this happening was to have previously eaten some wangla seed.

201px-Sesame_(PSF)

Thomas Banbury  also wrote of some very unpleasant effects that wangla could wreak on thieves. In Banbury’s account, if a thief walked along a road on which a mix of wangla, salt and pepper had be burned, then he or she would contract “Jamaica leprosy”.

 

Next time….
“Nature & Supernatural Nature” goes on its hols. But that doesn’t mean slouching on a sun lounger, slathered in factor 50 and sipping cocktails. Instead, we’re off to Warwickshire, England, to investigate why only bad people can grow parsley.

 

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. 128-129.
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. 10. Cited in Beckwith, Black Roadways, p. 129.
Image credits: Pearson Scott Foresman https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASesame_(PSF).png

Gourds

Gourds have a number of connections with African-Jamaican spiritual practices: as musical instruments, as a form of oracle and as receptacles for charms. In Black Roadways (1929), Martha Warren Beckwith wrote of how the Myal men in the Cockpits area of Jamaica used rattles, called “shakeys” alongside bon, panay and gombay drums to accompany the Myal dance to summon the spirits of the dead. She described a shakey as consisting of  “a gourd fastened to the end of a stick and filled with the shot-like seed of the wild canna or with small stones. Such a rattle is often reported from Africa as an accompaniment of war or medicine dances”.

Writing on Jonkonnu festivities, Beckwith mentioned about the gourd rattle being used in the parade, along with other musical instruments such as the “African Gombay drum”, all of which had associations with the invocation of spirits.

african calabash rattles

 

 

Beckwith also cited the 17th century naturalist, Hans Sloane, who had observed how such rattles were:

”used as fetishes by the Indians of the Mosquito coast… The Indians adorned them with feathers and “planted” them among their houses. Such an object was called a maraca. After feeding for thirteen of fourteen days it would cause the roots to grow and would ‘answer’ questions”.

 

In addition to being employed as percussion instruments and oracles, gourds were also used as receptacles for Obeah practitioners’ charms. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury  detailed the items such charms could contain. These included “pieces of broken bottles, cats’ or serpents’ teeth, nails, and bones, pins, needles, vials, pieces of cloth, &c”. The Obeah person would then recite an incantation over the charm. It was now ready to be buried in the yard or path of the intended victim. If the person stepped on it, the charm was believed to transfer its power to their body.

 

Next time….
The Obeah powers of Wangla are under the spotlight

 

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. 148, pp. 212-213.
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. 12.
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. 6, 7.
Image credits: picture by Tmwatha – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFashion_Calabash.jpg
N.B. Unfortunately Beckwith doesn’t give the Latin name of the type of gourd which she is referring to. This makes finding an image of a specific plant difficult as there are a large number of species of gourd. Therefore I’ve used an image of some African gourd rattles which I think may have been made on similar lines to the Jamaican ones.